April Witch, by Majgull Axelsson. Villard. 408 pages. $24.95.
Most of us cannot name a single cultural product of Sweden other than sauna and massage, small meatballs and Ingmar Bergman. So it is a labor of love to cause to be translated a contemporary Swedish novel, a "monster best seller" there but unquestionably something of an oddity here, lacking the warm lure of the more fashionable exotic.
And once having thought of Bergman, one might find it difficult to forget him, as there is nothing light or banal about April Witch, Majgull Axelsson's second prize-winning novel.
The novel unfolds in lugubrious black and white, with some rare splashes of color, like those painted onto the dresses in an old photograph of three girls in a cherry tree. The photo is an image of a moment of childhood happiness in the past of three troubled women who were once together in foster care: Christina, a doctor, seemingly successful and composed, but so emotionally distressed she fails to help a suicidal patient; Margareta, a physicist, who in middle age is still working on her dissertation, and changes boyfriends every six months; and Brigitta, a prostitute, former meth addict, and raving alcoholic.
Their story is told by a fourth "foster sister," who never even shared that cheerfully, if falsely colored moment in the cherry tree: Desiree, so severely disabled at birth -- partly due to her mother's own bone deformations from childhood hunger -- that she has never been able to walk, speaks by blowing puffs of air into a tube that are translated into words on a computer screen, and is vulnerable to massive epileptic seizures.
Desiree is also an "April Witch," able to "see through time and hover in space ... hide in drops of water or insects ... take possession of a human being. But she doesn't have a life of her own." Like the other women, she is obsessed with her own abandonment: Her mother left her to be institutionalized, and later became the foster mother of the other three. Desiree, from her mystical, omniscient, birds'-eye view, orchestrates the novel's unfolding from this rather clumsy premise: She wants to discover which of the "sisters" is living the life she was meant to have.
Fortunately, each woman does have a life that becomes more convincing and compelling as each delves into her own past, and the factors that shaped or twisted her.
Margareta and Desiree, both abandoned at birth, both immersed in particle physics, are interested in God, the primal abandoner, the Almighty Trickster. "I do not know whether meaning is an equation or a poem, a song or a saga -- but I know that it exists," Desiree pronounces a bit tendentiously.
The other two are more material creatures, one clutching at the security of old houses and silk scarves, the other drawn only to chemical consolations. Each must acknowledge and reckon with -- and perhaps forgive -- the failings of her mother, including the great impersonal mother of the Scandinavian welfare state, which too often substituted pity for compassion and bureaucracy for care.
Only in that reckoning, and in choosing a real life lived over a colorized life imagined and idealized, can they come to some fragile peace with one another.
Alane Salierno Mason is an editor at W. W. Norton & Co. She is a contributor to various periodicals and anthologies, including The Best Spiritual Writing 2001. Her translation from the Italian of Conversations in Sicily by Elio Vittorini was published by New Directions.