Book Review: Let Me Sing You Gentle Songs, by Linda Olsson
Posted on March 1, 2016
Come, sit by me, and I shall tell you all my sorrows; we shall talk to each other about secrets. p. 63 quote from Edith Sodergran’s Sorger (Sorrows), 1916.
As the title suggests, this is a gentle song of a book. It’s a quiet story about two women, one in her thirtieth year and the other decades older, helping each other through terrible losses merely by being present to one another. Veronika and Astrid meet as new neighbours who are situated on a hillside overlooking a mountain town in Sweden. Each is isolated in her own silent, aching grief, and together, they are isolated from the rest of the community. They soon begin sharing walks, picking berries, talking, eating, and narrating their lives for one another in short scenes that are understated but often trenchant. Ultimately, through the delicate art of companionship, they are able to rediscover life and beauty in the heart of their sorrows.
Perhaps this sounds cliche. There are moments when the characters do speak in philosophical platitudes (especially Astrid, towards the end) but then I am reminded that we do this in life too. We do, from time to time, turn over an old platitude and find truth hiding underneath. Some parts of the book were, I felt, a bit too neatly tied up (again towards the end) but, overall, I thought it very well done. Also, I preferred a clean finish with this particular book, because I felt the characters deserved it after all they’d been through. It was tremendously satisfying emotionally, even if in some part of my brain I was saying, “oh come on, really?”
Even if I did say that in part of my mind, I believe, still, that Linda Olsson had hit all the right notes by the time I closed the book. Her tale is neither overwrought nor austere in its telling. I liked especially the calmness of it all. There is no rending of clothes or gnashing of teeth to be found here, even when Veronika and Astrid are narrating traumatic events. Because of this emotional restraint, I was able to feel for them instead of them doing all the feeling and acting-out of big emotions.
The book is high drama, really, but so very low key. I admire this enormously, as I think it is not easy to pull off a novel that is essentially about two women doing ordinary things whilst healing from tragedy. Theirs are the the kind of losses that knock you clean out the window of life. Brahms is mentioned throughout, and Brahms suits to a T as its musical accompaniment (rather than, say, Beethoven or Wagner). The snippets of Swedish poetry, none of which I had ever read but which have been translated here, are so well chosen too and lovely to read in this context.
This is my favourite poem quote:
. . . for the day is you,
and the light is you,
the sun is you,
and all the beautiful, beautiful
awaiting life is you.
p. 252 quote from Helmer Grundstrom’s Ma — (May), 1954.
Let Me Sing You Gentle Songs moves its characters and its readers from one day and one season and one chapter to the next in a restrained but ever-changing fashion, much like the setting in which it is placed: the mountainous countryside of Sweden, with snow and ice and rain and then spring bursting forth with maypole dances and wild strawberries and birds chattering out the windows. This is one of those books that stirs the soul and which lingers, but softly softly.