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from the September 2019 issue

A Family Drama Unfolds in Silence in Linda Boström Knausgård’s “Welcome to America”

Reviewed by Deborah Bragan-Turner

A Stockholm apartment where two children live with their mother is the main setting for this book, an intimate portrait of a family in crisis that won the prestigious Swedish August Prize and has been described as a chamber play.

Welcome to America is a sad lament, a tale of a family in private crisis told by an eleven-year-old girl who has decided to stop talking. Reluctance to interact with other people seems to run in the family: her brother nails his bedroom door shut and urinates into bottles so that he can be undisturbed in his room, alone with his music. Their father is dead, as we soon discover, but mourning is only part of the reason for the children’s behavior. We gradually piece together a picture of their lives through a series of episodic fragments from the family’s past that lead up to the present day. 

Welcome to America is Linda Boström Knausgård’s second novel. It was originally published in 2016 in Sweden, where it was praised for the beauty of its prose and received the prestigious Swedish August Prize. The book has been translated into ten languages thus far. 

In an interview with Adam Dalva in Publishers Weekly, Boström Knausgård mentions that Swedish critics have described the book as a chamber play. It’s an apt comparison. The Stockholm apartment where the two children live with their mother is the main setting for the intimate interactions of this small cast of characters. There are no chapters, the prose flowing seamlessly on in the young girl’s unspoken words. We are presented with detailed descriptions of the minutiae of everyday life and household tasks. The outside world impinges only rarely, as when the school is on fire, for example, an event that is a turning point in the narrative. The title of the book suggests broader geopolitical concerns, but it actually refers to a role the children’s mother performed as a “fallen Statue of Liberty welcoming the immigrants to America.”

The novel’s minute scale allows Boström Knausgård to carefully develop a pattern of intricate conflicts and contrasts. “We’re a family of light,” says the children’s mother, even as an inner darkness threatens to engulf them all. She is a beautiful actress who is vibrant and full of joy, but one who is also given to moments of despair. As we observe the friendships and fun the girl used to enjoy in the chaotic house, filled with laughter and games, we are also aware of a pervasive fear, of both her father and her brother, and of the unnerving sense of order she used to feel in other people’s homes. Although she lives with a brother who can do whatever he wants, somehow she doesn’t know what she wants. “The thing is my own will is too weak to surface. If I had to probe into my life and ask myself questions, I wouldn’t be able to answer.” 

The girl’s silent passivity and ambiguous sense of self permeate the novel, and therefore it comes as no surprise that the book is nearly over before we find out that her name is Ellen. She wonders at one point if her own decision to be silent is genetic. “The genes come down hard in our family. Hard and without mercy.” But perhaps not from her mother’s side. “I could have been like her. Dark, with a kind of sparkle [. . .]. But somehow I fell short.”

Her father is a constant, haunting presence throughout the book. He makes ghostly appearances by her side, speaking to her and filling her mind with memories of the anxiety surrounding his illness, his rapidly changing moods, his drunkenness, his rage and desperation. She recalls visiting him in the hospital on her own, her mother waiting outside. And she acknowledges the immense stillness she felt the first time he was locked up. In the interweaving threads of light and dark, there are vestiges of happy memories too, especially of the times they spent at their cabin by the lake. “That was how I liked to think about my dad. At the boat, fishing. He was good at that. Everything else was a mess. It was frightening.” 

Ellen remembers praying for her father to die—this is the act she calls her first collaboration with God. Later she asks God to let her die too and to keep her mother safe and happy. Her father’s death affected her mother and brother, but for Ellen it was painless, or so she writes. Yet despite her own relief that he is gone—she even describes it as a kind of ecstasy—she has a nagging feeling that the family is being torn apart now that he is dead. And no one knows that she is the one responsible for his death.

The girl asks herself why she made the decision to stop talking; was it her desire to stop growing, to stay as she was? Was it to punish the mother she adored? She used to tell lies, so was this mute existence a way to live the truth? “I used to say things that weren’t true. I said the sun was out when it was raining.” Rather than escape, her silence acts as a defense, a means of self-protection. “Peering ahead in time is dangerous. You never know what you might see. I needed to stay where I was.”

She muses on the relationship she has with her mother and brother and is strikingly conscious of both its strength and vulnerability. “It was as if the calm that sometimes descended on us was dependent on such a fine-grained network of understanding and good will that no one felt inclined to break with the implicit order of things.” They all have a part to play, but she knows that her silence is stretching the family to the breaking point.

Boström Knausgård’s careful exploration of mental illness is restrained and entirely unsentimental. She passes no judgment on her characters, whose pain she reveals through Ellen’s musings. Her prose is unobtrusive in its simplicity and minimalism. The result is both powerful and lyrical, qualities beautifully rendered by translator Martin Aitken’s concise, pared-down English text. Boström Knausgård has also written collections of poetry and short stories, and two of her works have previously appeared in English: her first novel, The Helios Disaster, was translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles for World Editions in 2015, and her short story “The White-Bear King Valemon” was translated by Martin Aitken for Pushkin Press’s 2017 anthology The Dark Blue Winter Overcoat and Other Stories from the North, edited by Sjón and Ted Hodgkinson. 

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