The American Girl

By Monika Fagerholm

Other Press
February 2010
507 pages



The Glitter Scene

By Monika Fagerholm

Other Press
August 2011
518 pages


Reviewed by Darby M. Dixon III


In The American Girl, published in 2004, and The Glitter Scene, both translated by Katarina E. Tucker and published in 2009, Monika Fagerholm creates a dark, dramatic, and lyrical world, often insular, full of change and loss: "And once everything started changing, everything happened very quickly. In less than one year everything that had been would be destroyed." I fell in love with this world and these books; they are, for me, a fresh reminder of what story itself is about.

The story opens in 1969 in a distant Scandinavian town known only as the District, comprising "the Second Cape, the First Cape, the four marshes, and the long, deep woods that ended by the marshes in the east—there where the house in the darker part gradually came to be built." Three central characters are dead by page five; their lives, and the mysteries surrounding their deaths, generate much of the intrigue and mythology and history and atmosphere that drive the following pages.

The dead include:

Eddie de Wire, the American girl, "lying at the bottom of the marsh. Her hair was standing out around her head in thick, long strands like octopus tentacles. Her eyes and mouth were wide open."

Björn, her boyfriend, as found by their younger friend, Bencku, when he "walked into the outbuilding. The first thing he saw were the feet. They were hanging in the air. Bare feet, the soles gray and dirty. And lifeless. They were Björn's feet, Björn's body. Cousin Björn's. And he was only nineteen years old that same year, when he died by his own hand."

And, some years later, Doris Flinkenberg, who

came to Bule Marsh and she walked up Lore Cliff. She stood there and counted to ten. She counted to eleven, twelve, and fourteen too, and to sixteen, before she gathered enough courage to raise the pistol's barrel to her temple and pull the trigger.

She had already stopped thinking, but her emotions, they swelled in her head and her entire body, everywhere.

The truths and mistruths around the deaths laid out above become the stuff of stories in the District. These aren't post-modern books; these are books about people dealing with things that have happened in their world, to themselves, often through various forms of story or play-acting. The stories are complex ones, about change, and relationships, and the purpose and method of story itself. Stories about relationships, and stories shared by others in their own relationships, stories told and misremembered, enacted and re-enacted, stories that make perfect sense at the time, only later to not. The deaths are the results of relationships; relationships later find meaning in themselves as they find themselves reflected in the deaths they take up as subjects for their own stories.

Which all might sound a bit recursive; I admit that I haven't answered for myself every question these books ask. I'm not really done with these books. The way they are arranged and the way the story is structured (and the enclosed stories are structured) means you ought not to be easily done with them. They are not willfully difficult books, nor are they inaccessible—this is essentially plot-driven character and mood work, even if some shifts might be disorienting. Case in point: much of the middle three-fifths of the second book was not directly about what I expected it to be about. Flaw? Depends on your tolerance for the feint that seems to happen at the beginning of the book. Consider this a warning. What I mean is that these books that are so much about change, themselves change.

Central to the first book are the coming-of-age stories of best friends Doris and Sandra. Doris, known in the District as "the marsh kid," escaped her abusive parents at a young age; Sandra is the daughter of "jet-setters" to whom the house in the "darker part of the woods" belongs. It is there, in the basement, "the pool without water, that place in the world which was theirs, their headquarters," that they engage in one form of the aforementioned play-acting. Doris, about eight years old when Eddie de Wire dies, is unconvinced by the commonly agreed-upon stories about how Eddie died. When she connects with Sandra, Doris introduces the game of the Mystery of the American Girl. Through this game, they can investigate and act out the recent history of the District, in order to uncover the hidden truth.

Their relationship, founded on the game, is troubled, intense, and insular; these sections of the first book strike a compelling balance of narrative momentum, creative characterization, and musical language:

"But still, though you did not hear what the girls were saying to each other there where they were in the private shade off to the side in the garden, did you not discover, just by looking at them and their facial expressions, something muffled and alarming so to speak, something nevertheless a bit terrifying in the middle of all the light, summer, and fun? Something at least a bit ominous, which cast somewhat longer shadows in the bright day than what was normal.

"Maybe so. Just tell the girls. In fact, it would have made them proud and interested to hear it."

Where The American Girl is both a story of deeply challenged youth and a once-upon-a-time view of a place, The Glitter Scene frames through present-day happenings a story set mainly in 1989. In the present-day sequences, we see young Johanna, a girl doing research into the history of the District and the history of her own lineage, and Ulla Baäkström, a high school theater girl who plays the part of the American Girl in her own productions. Their story frames that of the pairing of Maj-Gun Maalamaa, the exuberant daughter of a District pastor, and the terrific enigma that is Susette Packlen. Their relationship is more violent and mysterious than that of Doris and Sandra, and more complex; less a story of friends dangerously close, more a story of a tension-slash-magnetism between adults:

"Even though [Susette] really does not want to, or maybe that is the wrong way to say it because it is only when she is actually in the newsstand, listening to Maj-Gun talking the hind leg off a donkey (and it is always Maj-Gun who is jabbering away, Susette who is listening), that she simultaneously in some way regrets having come, almost does not understand why she is there, longs to get away from there.

"But then again tearing yourself away without hurting Maj-Gun is not that simple.

"Tearing yourself away at all. Which is a rather strange feeling."

I was uncertain what to expect from The Glitter Scene following The American Girl, a book which felt complete. The Glitter Scene expands the world of the first book while burrowing deeper into it, broadening the scope of the original story, while unsettling some of its supporting pillars. It may seem tangential to The American Girl, but regularly intersects with it, adding fresh layers of re-interpretation.

And it's those additional layers that leave me looking forward to getting lost in this world again. Which, I believe, is the intent of these books; they directly invite this kind of response and reward re-reading in dealing so much with the intersection of story, relationship, and change—"that moment when everything changed at once and became something else." A paradox, then, that they find so much inspiration in popular music, folk songs of the 60s—"The folk song [which] has many verses, the same thing happens in every one. Over and over again." These books deflect resolution. Some deaths, once told, are only meant to be told again.