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from the July 2017 issue

“A Fortune Foretold” by Agneta Pleijel

Reviewed by Allison Grimaldi-Donahue

A Fortune Foretold is an emotionally complex coming of age novel. It digs deep and narrow into the history and memory of the story’s narrator and protagonist, Neta. I emphasize Neta’s two roles in this novel separately because the story is primarily, though not always, told in the third person. The present is narrated with the first-person "I," while Neta’s childhood and adolescence are treated with “her.” That is, most of the time, though the past has a funny way of infringing on the present, changing it, tainting it. 

Neta is a startlingly self-aware young woman who knows how to navigate harsh realities. As her family moves from Stockholm to Lund (with a brief stint in Princeton), Neta understands she will always be second to her father’s career and second to her mother’s other passions, ideas, lost lives. Neta’s life is filled with constant uncertainty, but she moves forward with a confident face.

She knows she has a better life than most people. But there is a shortage of love—no more than the odd glimpse from time to time. It’s not just because they are moving and she will never see the red-haired boy again. There’s other stuff too. 

The story is simple enough, the life of a young woman moving from childhood to adulthood. Neta is reckless at times, self-indulgent, typical and arrogant in the way she approaches her life as a teenager. Encountering a female protagonist prone to such flights of narcissism is refreshing and somehow Neta remains a sympathetic character despite all of these character flaws. 

Like most family stories, there is a veil of mystery behind her very bourgeois Swedish family’s activities. Her father the professor, whom she idolizes, turns out to be less than perfect. Her mother, a Dutch woman of Javanese descent, has a disability and often embarrasses Neta, is able to love her children in particular, confusing ways. The mother is a talented pianist whose career was cut short by having a family and for this reason she is prone to bouts of depression and anger. Behind this tale of difficult family dynamics, issues of race and disability lurk in the background Neta, perhaps because she is a child, tends to side with her father, even through his distance and infidelity. Neta often helps care for her two younger sisters, thinking of the youngest girl as her own baby. She has friends, boyfriends, but she feels the weight of family problems, even if she cannot identify them, throughout her life:

Childhood is a no-man’s-land . . . Now I’m going to talk about something for which I didn’t have words back then. About the fear. About the feeling of being overwhelmed, attacked in fact, by my body. About the loneliness all children share. And about the shadow cast by my parents’ dysfunctional marriage. But if they hadn’t met, I wouldn’t exist. Some other child, perhaps, but not me. That thought crossed my mind from time to time when I was growing up, and it was terrifying. 

Like every mother-daughter relationship, this one is complicated, loving, and often painful. Neta seeks female role models in her beloved Aunt Ricki and family friend Vibeke, but is incapable of seeing any of that same feminine strength in her own mother. This seems to indicate something particular about Neta’s emotional work in separating herself from this “foreign” mother, her desire to be something else, something more accepted, more mainstream, more womanly, more able. Looking back on her relationship with her mother, she writes:

I dug out the memory of the steamboat pier much later, when I thought I had never yearned for my mother. The strength of the emotion within the memory convinced me that wasn’t the case. Feelings have an archeology; you can dig down, discover new things.

This novel in translation touches on something I often think about while both reading works in translation and while practicing translation myself. In the Anglophone world we are deeply focused on the scene of a story, showing instead of telling, a fixation many might say stems from MFA program culture. This book, and much other prose in translation, is unafraid of telling us something. The narrator’s voice is powerful enough to carry the plot and the suspense, certainly, but the text also leaves a touch of the foreign. While Marlaine Delargy’s name is not on the cover, and nothing indicates right away that this is a work of translation, the words themselves sometimes feel as if they are being spoken from a Scandinavian’s very refined, very close, but not quite native English. What is striking about this translation is that it doesn’t seem to be seeking invisibility, it allows for the foreignness of the text to come through. This is fitting because A Fortune Foretold is also about communication, the difficulties of communicating with those closest to us. While reading this novel I was reading Eleni Stecopoulos’s book of essays or meditations or memoir, Visceral Poetics, published by ON Contemporary Practice in 2016. Reading the texts simultaneously brought out the confessional quality of Agneta Pleijel’s narrative voice through Neta. Stecopoulos writes about the curative properties of language, of "language as homeopathy, language as antidote to language." Neta needs to tell this story, in her wavering first and third person she creates a new history for herself, an honest version with which she is able to live. Her body and her words finally find a way to thrive and move forward:

We are fiction. We create ourselves with words. This is my fiction . . . I could have been wrong.

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