Rarely have I read such a candid portrayal of life with an infant as in Karolina Ramqvists new novel The White City.
The day before I got on a plane to San Francisco, I received this book in the mail. The timing could not have been more perfect, as the 172 page novel The White City is the perfect format for a flight and contains just enough suspense to keep you engaged for an hour or so. Ramqvist recently received the P.O. Enquist award in her homeland Sweden for this book, which in many ways is a continuation of her previous novel, The Girlfriend. But you can easily start with this one without having read the first, as I did.
The novel starts in a frozen landscape, which even extends into the house where the protagonist is living. Karin is alone with a small child and we learn that her husband John has left her in some way – perhaps he’s dead or perhaps he just took off. We also realize that John was not a man with a regular job, but was involved in some kind of shady business that supported the glamorous lifestyle that Karin now unsuccessfully is trying to sustain. She has a Chanel-bag in her closet, but the refrigerator is empty, the radiator is cold and there´s a gun in the kitchen drawer. Eventually we learn that the government is taking the house from Karin and we follow her desperate and sometimes humiliating efforts to save herself and her child.
There is something remarkably old fashioned about Karin. What modern woman makes her self so utterly dependent on a man? She´s a sort of gangster trophy wife and to make things worse, she has a child in her care at the very moment when her abilities as a caretaker are about to deteriorate. Her child is called Dream, which ads to the sensation of Karin’s almost unreal existence. While her character would fit nicely in a Tarantino movie, the language is often pure poetry to the extent that I had to underline sentences so that I could go back and read them again. The White City is a winter tale, but this is not cold prose. It is warm and engaging.
The strongest part of the book deals with the relationship between Karin and her baby. We learn that it was primarily John who wanted the child, but Karin still manages to show some sort of disconnected care and love for her daughter. “She knew the child would one day be the most precious thing she had,” writes Ramqvist in the book. “Until then it was perhaps just good luck that she was such a quiet baby. Perhaps it wasn´t true that you got the children you deserved, but the children you could handle.” Ramqvist shows us that motherhood is a constant state; once you’ve become a mother, you’re a mother forever. Even for those of us who live fairly normal lives this realization can seem merciless sometimes.
The White City has elements of both Scandinavian noir, dirty realism and beautiful winter poetry. The fact that it manages to include all these things is was makes it such a joy. Not least by offering up a heroine who is neither likable nor enviable, and yet has her cheering for her all the way. We want things to work out for Karin, but the cold and discomfort of her increasingly hopeless existence gives us no guarantees that it will.
Karolina Ramqvists The White City is available in Swedish and Norwegian.