I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I began Sara Stridsberg’s The Gravity of Love, a story about a Swedish psychiatric hospital*. What I got was a mesmerizing, beautifully written and sometimes alarming story, told predominantly through the eyes of thirteen-year-old Jackie, the daughter of one of the hospital’s patients, Jim. Jim is an alcoholic with a suicide-wish –
‘He has made up his mind to die, again. He announces it, in so many words, as soon as he comes through the door… “I don’t want to be old, Jackie. There’s nothing left to live for.” He has come to Stockholm to say goodbye… and asked for my blessing; and I have given it to him because I generally give him what he asks for. I have always been silenced by his presence, all thought inside me erased.’
The narrative moves back and forth in time and throughout, there’s an ethereal quality to the writing. Vignettes – of twilight hours, a fur coat, a broken string of beads, a curiosity shop, a doctor who may be as mad as his patients, and trees in the park – are stitched together with Stridsberg’s tremendously lovely words.
‘The stars seemed to have slipped slightly in the sky, and in the darkness we hear the ocean’s breathing, which never stops, the heavy waves beating against the shore before they draw back into the deep.’
I was particularly taken with her various descriptions of light –
‘The beautiful, terrifying, desolate light that spilled over, illuminating the night around him and betraying a special kind of intensity and recklessness, something unstoppable, a raging fire, the sheerest drop.’
‘We land in Cariño at dusk, the hour when shadows fade and vanish, when the light becomes gentle and weightless in place of the harsh white Spanish sunshine.’
‘Above them hovers a cloud of cigarette smoke. Grainy morning light, yellowish, like fever.’
Stridsberg understands things very deeply – loyalty, mental health and the impact it has on relationships, institutionalisation, a child’s unease – but writes about them in a way that is deceptively simple. The story is compact – you drift along, immersed in wondrous descriptions of starlit nights and lying in long grass, and then the punches are delivered, swift, hard and straight to the heart.
‘It is easy to idealise the institution as the perfect place that will do everything we human beings cannot bring ourselves to do for one another. And yet it is terrifying too, because it represents the imperfect in us: failure, weakness, loneliness.’
‘I think it must be love that is the true madness: passion, vertigo, hysteria.’
4.5/5 An exceptional, unsettling book – it’s not for everyone but I want more Stridsberg.
I received my copy of The Gravity of Love from the publisher, Quercus Press, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.
‘Jim and Lone are in the kitchen… in the last afternoon light, she with a blue bowl and a whisk in her arms, making one of her lemon tarts, he with a glass of sherry in his hand. “I’ll put my head in the oven so you know where I am,” he whispers, kissing her neck.’
*The book is set in Beckomberga, a Swedish psychiatric hospital built in 1932. At its peak, the hospital was ‘home’ to 2,000 patients, largely due to the fact that the clinical definition of ‘insane’ was a catchall for alcoholics, addicts, and anyone who posed a risk to themselves or others – the numbers of people in mental institutions in Sweden grew eight fold during the mid 20th century. The hospital closed in 1995 as clinical attitudes to the treatment of mental illness changed.