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Literary Friday: Breathless

Friday, November 1, 2013

Happy All Saints' Day {and November}!!!  This week I read Breathless by Anne Swärd.  I truly need something light and cheerful to read next week (like the book Patty sent me) but I'm reading a couple of book club selections so I'm not counting on happy endings anytime soon!  *sadface*

Oh, if you could only truly judge a book by its cover.  I'll admit that I saw this book on the new and recommended shelf at the library, and I immediately picked it up and read the book flap.  Anne Swärd is hailed as "a major Swedish talent" (there have been several wonderful books written by Swedes lately...especially crime dramas) who "tells a modern fairy tale about the embrace of family" (well, okay, that might be true, but it would have been nice if incest and pedophilia were mentioned).  Plus I love fairy tales, and frankly I just don't see how this novel can be compared to a fairy tale.  Breathless is a coming of age story about Lo, the daughter from an unconventional Swedish family and Lukas, a Hungarian immigrant.  The two meet while their small southern Swedish village burns from a fire set by Lukas: he's thirteen and Lo is only six.  Lukas lives with his abusive father Gábriel who doesn't speak Swedish and speaks so infrequently to Lukas in Hungarian that he eventually loses the ability to understand it.  Lo lives with her parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles.  There are so many people who love Lo and look out for her that she sometimes feels she "belongs to no one."

Lo's family members are justifiably creeped out over the age difference between the pair.  They never trust Lukas, yet Lo spends so much time with him in a quirky cabin by the lake that once belonged to a pearl fisher.  The cabin contains exotic memorabilia from around the world, and Lukas and Lo make it their refuge from too many adult eyes in Lo's case and a father whose preferred method for communication is his fist in Lukas' case.  They have an innocent friendship and enjoy swimming (naked), napping (naked), and quoting lines (acting out scenes) from the movie Breathless starring Jean Seberg.  Now, if I had caught one of my daughters at the age of nine with a sixteen year old swimming naked I'd go postal on the teenaged perverted perp and ask questions later.  And Lo's mother is chopping wood with a very sharp ax in almost every single scene that mentions her.  Lukas must be intellectually challenged.  Innocence indeed....but there are similar scenes between Lo and her youngest uncle Rikard, and Lo's mother when she was young with her father-in-law.  Confused yet?  More about that later.

There are many parallels to the movie Breathless and Seberg's life throughout the novel which adds to its poignancy.  What I can't understand is how in the world Lo could spend so much time alone with Lukas in a cabin if her family were truly that concerned about their friendship.  But "the setting is the 1970's, a time of innocence in Sweden" according to Swärd.  I just wonder if this is a language/translation issue because there's a huge difference between innocence and neglect in English.

On Lo's fifteenth birthday, Lukas buys a car and takes her on a trip to the Tivoli Pleasure Gardens in Copenhagen.  (Now, I'd just like to see any 23 year old stupid enough to try to take my 16 year old on an overnight trip out of town.  You'd be reading about it in the papers I'm sure once I'd finished with him.)  Exhausted and high from too much cotton candy and beer, Lo falls asleep, and a trust is broken. I still have no idea what happened between Lukas and Lo, but her virtue wasn't harmed according to the narrative, and I just don't get why the rift started on this trip.  The narrative in this book is very murky because it's very disjointed.  Told in flashback, I read the novel carefully, and I don't think I could place each vignette into the correct chronological order on a bet.  It's as if Lo poured all her memories in a pensieve and randomly retrieved them in no particular order.  Told mostly from Lo's point of view, her voice is unique, but selfish toward the reader. She doesn't reveal the how of things, and rarely the why. I guess what kept me reading is the imagery, and I suppose that some credit belongs to the translator Deborah Bragan-Turner.  I read an interview with Swärd, and her background is in the visual arts. This makes perfect sense and also explains why I kept reading a very dark, confusing, and evocative story.

I do think that this book would be a great selection for a book club because there is so much to discuss and dissect, from the repetitive theme of fire, to the breathless moments from childhood that are sometimes suppressed.  And maybe it takes a group to figure out this book.  I could really use your help if you've read it.  I'd love to discuss it with someone but I haven't been able to find anyone who's read it yet.  But then again, I don't know if the "ick" factor is worth it.  You'd probably be better off reading Swamplandia! because there's nothing murky about the plot.

Until next time...

Happy reading!
Ricki Jill


  1. If I think I'm going to read a book, I don't like to read a review first. But I'm pretty sure I won't be reading this one so I read your whole review with interest. Good review....I'll remember not to be deceived by the cover of the book. Sweet hugs!

  2. That cover would entice me to check out the book. Not sure if it is my type of story though.

  3. Maybe it's one of those artsy-fartsy books that's hailed because nobody understands it, but nobody wants to admit that? I hate murky-plot books...I don't need everything explained out to me, but I should be able to understand the major climaxes and catalysts in the novel. Meep.

  4. RJ,
    I have yet to have exposure to any Swede book/movie that isn't a bit on the perverted side/or just plain depressing. This one sounds like it's no exception.
    I had to laugh at your comment about book group book selections, that is why I ultimately left my book group, they insisted on reading things that were too grim, often the same topic over and over. I must be a bit too Polyanna-like to enjoy some of the more "stimulating" topics.

  5. I am still trying to figure out how you have time to read, blog daily and drive carpool. You are super woman.

  6. Hi Ricki! Aside from the great story, I find a lot of issues and hanging questions with the characters and events presented in the book. I may not be a mom yet but I share your sentiments. Yes I agree that this type of book can be a very good material for book discussions.. which I never experienced yet.

    Thank you for hosting. Have a great week ahead!

  7. Your comprehensive review convinced me that I will not be reading this one either, so sorry will not be able to discuss with you.


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I'm Ricki Jill. Welcome! I'm honored that you're reading my blog. I enjoy sharing my creative lifestyle @ The Bookish Dilettante. For more information about my blog, please read the Start Here page. Thank-you for stopping by, and I hope you'll consider following me via email.


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