Borderless Book Club ‘Inlands’

Last week’s Borderless Book Club saw a discussion of Inlands, published by Nordisk Books, written by Elin Willows, and translated from the Swedish by Duncan J. Lewis. The minimalist and stripped back narrative is written from the point of view of a young Swedish girl who has moved from the city to a remote Northern town in order to live closer to her boyfriend. However, within weeks of arriving, they split up, and despite there being no reason at all for her to stay, she does. We follow her as she explores her vast and bleak surroundings, and gets to know the ins and outs of the town, all from somewhat of a distance, born out of an apparent reluctance to grow attached to anything or anyone.

This week’s session was great, as we were lucky enough to be joined by both the author and translator. The evening started with an introduction to Elin, the author, and Duncan, the translator (and director of Nordisk). Elin Willows is a radio host and journalist living in Finland, however, she is from Stockholm, Sweden and has also lived in the Northern town in which the book is set. Elin explained that she moved there with the plan to stay for one to three months but actually ended up staying for a year and a half. She said that whilst the book is not based on this part of her life, the location, and some of the characters she met there inspired it, and she finds that she relates closely to some of the feelings that the protagonist experiences. Elin explained that she thought a lot about the seasons and the surroundings whilst writing, and this definitely shows, with the weather and nature almost becoming an antagonist in the book. Elin told the group that whilst she has been writing her entire life, having her book published is a dream that she never thought would come true. Inlands came to be published in English after Duncan came across the book and was drawn in by the spartan nature of the writing. Throughout the translation process, the pair would often keep in contact, working together closely on certain sections, with Duncan sending his drafts and Elin giving her feedback. A challenging aspect of translation and an element of the book with which Elin offered the most help was with the descriptions of the landscape. Duncan explained that rendering the Swedish words used to describe the landscape into English was particularly tricky, as there are simply not English words to describe these characteristics of the landscape of Northern Sweden. In order to help with the translation, Elin sent Duncan photographs of the scenery that she was describing, this allowed Duncan to recreate these descriptions in English as closely as possible.

Elin and Duncan then went on to talk about anonymity in the book. As a reader, we never learn the protagonist or her lover’s name and we also find out nothing about her ‘previous’ life. Elin’s reasoning behind this was that “a name says so much about a person”, therefore, she didn’t want to name her protagonist as she wanted her to be an open character that each reader to relate to, making up their own ideas of who she is, what she looks like, and what her story is. Duncan agreed with this idea of anonymity, stating that if a name or character description does not add to the narrative then he doesn’t necessarily believe that there is a need for it, he went on to add that the namelessness of the main characters also eliminates any connotations that a reader may have with that name already.

Elin went on to explain the interesting method she used to write Inlands. Throughout the writing process, she was extremely busy, therefore, she would write in ten-minute bursts every day, this is shown through the truthful, frank and economical style, a style that only highlights the character’s emotional disconnect from the world around her. Due to her method of writing in these short bursts, Elin ended up with a non-linear narrative, something which she stated is the ‘central nerve’ of the book. Elin then intervened further, ‘cutting-up’ and rearranging the order in which the writing naturally occurred. This non-linearity pulls the focus away from specific events, allowing the reader to notice and interact with the more important elements of the book such as the protagonist’s relationship with her emotions and the changes she experiences in her surroundings. The narrative jumps from winter to summer are also very disorienting and leave us perhaps just as disoriented as the protagonist is in this new place. The sense of place within the book is very important, and Elin explained to the group that place is something she could not help but write about. Having moved a lot, she is interested in the effects that place and change of place can have on an individual. The location of the book is particularly interesting, being closed off and impenetrable (even for the protagonist to some extent) it is distant and self-contained.

The next part of the session saw us move into a more detailed group discussion of the book. Despite the sparse and often melancholy narrative, we found the book incredibly immersive and calming. Perhaps on my part, this is because to some extent I can relate closely to some of the experiences that the protagonist encounters with regards to changing location etc., however, I think that the beautiful, albeit minimalistic descriptions of the unforgiving, yet somehow nurturing nature that the protagonist is surrounded by also has a part to play in this. One of the first things we talked about as a group was why we thought the girl decided to stay in this remote Northern town despite the one reason she chose to move there no longer being a part of her life. For me, it seemed that she enjoyed and almost relished in this emotional disconnect from everything and everyone around her, in this town she has no ties, no obligations, and this allows her to isolate herself further from life than she already has. We all agreed that she has a resistance to narrative, a resistance to the idea that she ‘has to do something’. We also briefly discussed the descriptions of the relentless summer sun and the endless winter, and the fact that despite the huge differences that this change in climate could have on a person, this really does not seem to evoke any changes in the protagonist’s habits or mood. Perhaps this is indicative of her desire for disconnect culminating in her attempt, and failure to connect to nature.

Our group then went on to discuss the mystery illness that the protagonist experiences. Like most areas of her life, we discussed the possibility that this denial or ignorance of her illness is perhaps an unwillingness to confront any conflictive or emotive aspects of her life, instead she just drifts through this illness in a naive state of denial, or ignorance. In this part of our discussion we discussed ideas of mental health and depression, and the sad reality of this character’s life: minimal interaction with other people, eating little, sleeping a lot, not cleaning. To finish our discussion we talked about the ending of the novel where the character makes a u-turn in the car. Someone bought up the interesting idea that this could perhaps not just be interpreted as a physical u-turn in her car, but also a u-turn on this part of her life, an indication that she has made the decision to leave this remote town and return to her previous life in the city…

I loved reading Inlands, and despite the short format of the chapters, I quickly became completely immersed in the novel. I found the concise narrative that dealt with themes such as isolation, loneliness and place incredibly truthful. This, along with the beautiful descriptions of her vast and desolate surroundings made for a wonderful read.

This week’s discussion was great, and it was great to be able to hear from both the author and the translator. I am looking forward to reading next week’s book, a collection of short stories that I am sure will provoke another very different, and very interesting discussion: Palestine +100, published by Comma Press.

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