The Hum of Concrete is a ‘novel constellation’ – a series of smaller stories, strung together in the micro-cosmos of Malmö, Sweden. It’s the debut novel by Swedish-Australian writer Anna Solding, who has published sections of it as short stories elsewhere. Here, several interleaving narratives unfold in and around Solding’s former home city, which is textually created with such affection it becomes a character in its own right. This is a story rooted in Sweden, though in many ways it could be set anywhere, dealing as it does with the big themes of human experience: love, birth and death.
The key protagonists are five very different souls, whom we meet as young women at formative moments in their lives. Bodil is a misfit student, working through the awkwardness of late adolescence with a best friend who hides a troubling secret. Nassrin is a Palestinian migrant, pregnant and isolated, a spectator of her new world from the remote safety of her apartment balcony. Susanna is trying to find her tribe, eager to run with the cool kids she gets caught up in the gay-bashing gang wars of the local disaffected youth. Estella is strident and clever, but tortured by the pain of a terminally ill brother and absent father. And finally, Rhyme, who appears to escape into fantasy to cope with emotional difficulties.
Beyond these introductions, the novel offers many surprises in terms of the women these five will become. As they build on their early life experiences, growing into career women, mothers, wives and friends, the novel asks us to question what is ‘normal’ in terms of sexual identity and mental health, as well as the ways in which we define women and negotiate motherhood. Solding has constructed her novel as a series of vignettes, where the reader is privy to incidents in each character’s life rather than an extended narrative. With Malmö itself featuring so prevalently, the novel feels very much like a secret walk through the city, with glimpses into people’s living rooms. We, as readers, witness a moment of pleasure, or grief, or awakening, but then we walk on by, returning for a second peek some years later.
The Swedish climate, with its stark contrasts of whites and greens, and its unique relationship with light and dark, is used to great effect in paralleling the emotions of the protagonists; it is also juxtaposed with the heat and red earth of far away Australia, a country to which many of the characters have links, whether by phone, or memory, or imagination. Malmö is vividly painted for any reader who has never visited; whereas anyone familiar with the city no doubt would be mentally walking its paths with this book as a loving guide. The intratextual translation[i] of occasional Swedish words, foods and place names is minimal, providing an additional reading level on which those with an insider’s knowledge can connect, whilst others are distanced. Again, this parallels experiences of the characters, some of whom move comfortably around the city, whilst others, like Nassrin, remain forever on the perimeter.
The discontinuous narrative unfolds sporadically until a climactic intersection brings all the characters to one place at one time via their connections with the ultimate act of hope – birth. This intersection is, in many ways, a literary device to show the interconnected humanness of these characters; however, it also gave me an insight into the city. Suddenly Malmö reminded me of my own home town of Brisbane where, despite the ever-expanding population, there are usually far fewer than six degrees of separation between the people I meet. It seems entirely reasonable that five very different women might find themselves circling the same hospital at the same time – influencing each other with their presence, even if only through the briefest of encounters.
Solding writes with insight and sensitivity about experiences common to many women (like postnatal depression or the tug of work/life balance) along with rare dilemmas that take some families completely by surprise – like the ethical questions surrounding intersex children. This novel asks us to ponder the complexities of a life as lived and the influence on our present of the formative incidents of our pasts. It brings to mind a pinball game – where we might be heading along a particular trajectory until we bump into a person, or event, or idea and go ricocheting off in a different direction. The character snapshots of Solding’s novel represent those bouncing-off points and remind us that as we walk around our cities, amidst the hum of concrete that often sees us with our eyes cast down and our minds cycling through our own troubles, we are surrounded by fellow travellers, each with their own unique story built on similar forks in the road.
After reading this fascinating and complex novel, I was keen to ask Anna Solding a few questions about how she arrived at creating this microcosm of human experience. I was particularly intrigued by the Swedish setting, and how Solding’s unique perspective of connecting with two cultural spaces may have influenced her work.
TCM: What is it about Malmo that made it the right place for these characters’ stories to unfold?
AS: Malmö is such a weird and wonderful city in many ways but hardly anyone ever writes about it. I grew up there and I think it deserved its own story. However, there are other places of similar diversity around the world where stories like these could have unfolded. Adelaide, where I live now, is one of them.
TCM: Many of your themes cross over cultural boundaries, but are there any facets of the story that you thought could only happen in Sweden?
AS: That is an interesting question. I aim to write so that everyone can recognise something of themselves somewhere in the story. Even though it is clearly set in Malmö, and Malmö is one of the main characters, I don’t think the individual events could only happen in Sweden, but I could be wrong. What do you think? Being a Palestinian immigrant in Sweden is probably a little different from being one in Australia but essentially I think these situations evoke similar questions of changing cultural identities and how to cope with children becoming distanced from you by language and environment. I think we can all recognise some of the feelings in the book. At the moment, I see my eight-year-old taking his first tentative steps away from me, and this is a natural progression of life. A little sad, but so much more difficult to cope with when mother and child no longer share culture and language.
TCM: Several of your characters have links with Australia. Given your own background, do you find it important (or even just enjoyable?) to reference both Sweden and Australia in your writing?
AS: I was born and grew up in Sweden but I have lived in Australia for the last 13 years, so I find linking my countries both important and enjoyable. Because Australia and Sweden are both so dear to me, I surround myself with the best of both worlds all the time.
TCM: Your main protagonists are all very different women, who bring to the book a range of themes, such as mental health, migration and sexual identity. Are there any of these themes which you are particularly passionate about, or which you thought were under-represented in contemporary fiction when you wrote the book?
AS: When I wrote The Hum of Concrete, I had never read about a fictional character with intersex, and I felt passionately that I wanted to change that. Mental health, migration, sexual identity and other themes that run through the book are all very important to me and those are the kinds of broader issues that we all live with and should reflect on. At times, I find the debate about refugees and gay marriage in Australia quite frustrating. But ultimately, I think there is a generosity of spirit when people put themselves in someone else’s shoes, both in Australia and in Sweden.
The Hum of Concrete is published by MidnightSun Publishing. I thank the author kindly for my copy.
This review is also on my AWW2012 Challenge list!
I also have a copy of this intriguing novel to give away this week. To enter, simply leave a comment below and I’ll choose a winner at random on Friday 20th July. With thanks to MidnightSun Publishing!
[i] My PhD thesis bangs on endlessly about the term ‘intratextual translation’. If you wish to read further, have a look at: http://eprints.qut.edu.au/15785/