The Survivors is the first book I’ve read by Swedish writer Alex Schulman. I don’t read a lot of translated books (usually because I read crime fiction and find the police and judicial system in Nordic countries, as well as France and Italy to be very confusing!) but this is also Schulman’s first novel.
Although I’m prone to overthinking and overanalysing (well, at least pondering) I’m still not sure what I think of this book. Its pacing felt a little slow and drawn-out. But it’s written cleverly – we go backwards in time (in the present) which is interspersed with snippets from the past.
Some of the writing is magic and I’m not sure if that’s down to Schulman or translator Rachel Willson-Broyles and there’s a very big reveal at the end that left me speechless.
by Alex Schulman
Published by Fleet
Source: Hachette Australia
Genres: Literary Fiction
ISBN: B08S6WG6S6, 9781408707876
Three brothers return to the family cottage by the lake where, more than two decades earlier, a catastrophe changed the course of their lives. Now, they are here to scatter their mother's ashes.
Benjamin, the middle son, drives the three of them down the old gravel road to the house, through a familiar landscape but also through time. Here they are as boys, tanned legs and hungry eyes, children left to themselves by remote parents; here they are as young men, estranged but bound together by the history that defines them, their lives spent competing for their father's favour and their mother's love in a household more like a minefield than a home.
In the intervening years, Benjamin has grown increasingly untethered from reality, frozen in place as life carries on around him. And between the three brothers hums a dangerous current. What really happened that summer day when everything was blown to pieces?
I feel like I need to use the word haunting to describe this novel. But that probably isn’t something I felt until after I’d finished the book.
In the present we’re with the three brothers over the course of just one day or so. We start at the end and work backwards in blocks of time.
In between Benjamin reveals snippets of their lives – with a focus on a holiday spent at the cottage decades before. Benjamin’s narration is insightful and we soon learn he was the watcher in the family. The blurb references him struggling with life ‘since’ his childhood but he’s obviously hypersensitive when we first meet the nine year old.
His breathing became faster and heavier and he heard unfamiliar sounds, realised they were coming from him. And bit by bit, the world vanished. All his life he had battled this feeling, of losing grip on reality. He had always sought out real places or things to hold on tight to but for the first time he wanted the opposite: to let go of everything that kept him here. p 127
He warily watches his parents as they metaphorically circle each other awaiting a fight. He tries to intervene if his brothers are acting out and seemingly unaware of the impact their actions could have in the delicate balance of the world in which they live.
It’s an interesting study in a family disintegrating, although it’s obvious it’s far from a harmonious unit at the start. The brothers respond accordingly. Nils has essentially opted out and Pierre angry, resentful and not caring about the consequences of his behaviour. Only Benjamin seems to worry about keeping the family intact and maintaining the peace.
His parents – not overtly abusive as such – are distant and emotionally manipulative. They’re heavy drinkers (at least on holidays) and seem to feel little attachment to the boys. There are moments though and Benjamin describes how desperately he craves their attention and love.
He also talks about his parents being well-educated for example, but neglecting the boys’ education, ensuring they remain intellectually superior to their children.
There’s a sense of the boys banding together as children but their game-playing parents drive a wedge between them that festers until we join them.
The events of the present are short and not-sweet. They start with a bang before going back in time (both over the course of the day and the lives of the family in general), giving us context.
Though there’s an emphasis on the ‘fateful’ (and last) holiday the family spent at the cottage Benjamin drops us in and out of events of the past. It’s probably a little repetitive in parts and disjointed as there’s no real consistency…. though I realise they’re events that had or have some poignancy or importance for him. And of course we eventually make it back to the present and the death of their mother – and what comes after.
Some of the writing in this book is amazingly eloquent and astute. Weighty and important.
He doesn’t yet know that this story can’t be written up on a blank page or two, that he’s stepping in at the end of a tale that’s spanned decades; a tale of three brothers who were torn away from this place long ago and now have been forced to return; that everything here is interconnected, that nothing stands alone nor can be explained on its own. The weight of what’s taking place right now is enormous, but, of course most of it has already happened. pp 6-7
The Survivors by Alex Schulman was published in Australia by Hachette and is now available.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.