Amatka by Karin Tidbeck

Amatka BY Karin Tidbeck. Vintage. Paperback, 224 pages. $15.
The cover of Amatka

The work of Swedish fiction writer Karin Tidbeck compels reading for several reasons, not least the intriguing things she does with names. Her first novel in English, termed “speculative fiction” in its publicity materials, sets off speculation with the name of the protagonist alone: Brilars’ Vanja Essre Two. Granted, most of the time this young woman is referred to simply as “Vanja.” Still, everyone around her turns out to wear a likewise complicated coat of arms.

Each brief chapter of Amatka occupies a successive day—the whole unfolds over a month, ever more disruptive—yet this calendar reads differently from our own: “Firstday,” “Seconday,” and so on. “Sevenday,” wouldn’t you know it, is set aside for “wholesome fun with family and friends.” But by the novel’s first Sabbath, “wholesome fun” itself seems suspect, and with it, the very act of naming. Even the most run-of-the-mill objects bear labels (“WASHBASIN, PANTRY, TABLE”). Vanja and the others take time to identify things aloud (“Vegetable refinery... Medical supplies factory”), and often they also touch the thing, as if to underline.

Even as Tidbeck sets up a world rife with mystery, she establishes its rules. Everything must be named, or “marked,” iteratively, or else it dissolves into a “thick paste.” If the inhabitants of this world get careless, if something of theirs turns to “scrap,” it’s at least shameful and at worst, a sign that they just don’t fit in. A society forever on the verge of dissolution, after all, requires scrupulous obedience from every “loyal comrade of the commune.” Doesn’t each citizen’s name fix his or her position, “marked” by a possessive and a number? And doesn’t everyone understand that “the world outside of the colonies was dangerous”?

Even the assignment that brings Vanja to Amatka, a farm colony, threatens the established order. Politics and culture smack of communism at its most submissive, and there’s a fleeting citation from Marx, but the stranger comes to town on a more or less capitalist venture. The colonial center is trying out “free production,” exploring whether its soap will sell in the outlying settlements, till now largely self-sustaining. Vanja has come to assess the market, in other words. No sooner does she explain her assignment than a local grumbles, “I don’t know if I think that’s a good thing.”

The looming imbalance shows up even in the name Tidbeck gives her text and “colony.” The author is Swedish, but she does her own translation, and she never lacks for subtlety, as when Vanja seeks to exit a “Sevenday” party: “She sat still and let the cacophony wash over her until it was late enough to make absconding acceptable.” Now, any novelist who makes such smart use of “absconding” is well aware that her title combines love (ama in the Latin) and death (ka in Egyptian myth: a ghost, roughly). Certainly her plot makes room for both. Vanja’s business trip turns bumptious and cathartic, as love and death spring surprises of their own. When the protagonist falls in love with her housemate, another woman, the affair not only transgresses norms but also changes her own “marking.” She has both a new job and new hometown. Then, when Vanja’s lover loses the Amatkan equivalent of a brother, spit out by the commune like a loose screw from a machine, the new relationship briefly goes to pieces—and the storytelling achieves genuine pathos.

The predictable, in short, has little place in Tidbeck’s imagination. Her previous US publication was Jagannath (2012), a small set of stories on a small press called Cheeky Frawg Books. Its material too felt otherworldly, but more various, more colorful. The new book features a drabber setting, but the author uses this as a backdrop for her impressive narrative energy. Consider Vanja’s first impressions of Amatka:

...its shape was familiar: the low gray cubes and rectangles of houses placed in concentric rings around the central building, the eight streets radiating from its center to the outer ring of domed plant houses. Beyond them, the yellowy gray of the endless tundra.

Within this gloomy geometry will bloom all the woman’s changes, from falling for someone of the same gender to skulking around forbidden places, driven by irrepressible unease at the status quo. More than that, these developments glitter with canny humanity:

Ulla’s smile returned. “Went down to the lake at night, did we?”

“I thought I saw someone who looked like you.”

“I heard you were drinking.”

“I was.”

Ulla nodded. “So you went out to the lake, alone, drunk.”

Out by the ice, Tidbeck’s incipient revolutionary seeks a better world, of course. Yet she also strives for something more fundamental: something like maturity. Vanja may at times resemble a noirheroine, neither slow on the uptake nor averse to risk, but she’s no Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. She’s not that in control. Rather, Amatka is a triumph of personal growth, of escaping a perspective that started out shrunken; “we were children,” Vanja muses, in one of her late epiphanies. Overall, the drama first stuffs its characters into a kiddie harness and then sets them gnawing at their bonds, and so calls to mind Ursula K. Le Guin’s paired speculative fictions of social unrest, The Left Hand of Darkness in 1969 and The Dispossessed in 1974. The comparison would be daunting for a writer of lesser gifts, lesser gumption, but Tidbeck invites it, boldly. The landscape surrounding her Amatka, the “gray of the endless tundra,” can’t help but recall Le Guin’s harsh planet Winter, in Left Hand.

John Domini’s most recent book is the story collection MOVIEOLA! (Dzanc Books).