Astrid & Veronika
I first saw Linda Olsson’s debut novel Astrid & Veronika while browsing at Barnes & Noble. I was intrigued by the beautiful cover and the recommendation by Kim Edwards (author of The Memory Keeper’s Daughter) on the back cover. I put it back because I had so many other books in the TBR stack already. But in one of those serendipitous occasions that prove the intangible connections between sisters, my little sis Sarah was in another state buying a copy! So she passed it on to me and then my mom, and from our discussions, we all seem to appreciate it for similar reasons.
The story revolves around two characters: Veronika, a 30-year-old novelist originally from Sweden but more recently from New Zealand, who returns to a remote area of Sweden and rents a house with only one neighbor, an elderly recluse named Astrid. When circumstances bring them together, they embark on an unusual, intimate (but never sappy), year-long friendship in which they reveal, and begin to heal from, the separate tragedies of their pasts.
This striking relationship is the sum of the story, as the title declares. These two characters are fully revealed to the exclusion of all others; the few other bit players necessary for facilitating the plot are mere shadows. In another novel, this exclusivity would be a weakness, but here it is an intentional act that draws the reader into the remote physical and emotional landscapes. Their stark loneliness is the only thing these two women have in common, until their concern for each other causes them to reach deep inside and recover their compassion and kindness. They begin to care for one another—cooking; listening; gathering wildflowers; driving into town for lunch and a swimsuit; visiting the cemetery; taking each other’s hands as they hike the terrain that represents Astrid’s losses. And these seemingly insignificant actions revive them. The relationship, and with it the storyline, progresses through natural stages in which they slowly disclose the nature of their sufferings, learning to accept each other as people worthy of dignity despite what they have done and what has been done to them.
A strong sense of place infuses the narrative. The prose is heavy on description and light on dialogue and action, again an element that in another work would be a fault but here is justifiable and beautifully handled. Olsson evokes the beauty and severity of Sweden and New Zealand, from the sweetness of the woodland strawberries to the froth of the crashing surf, both wildly lovely places capable of sustaining and taking life. Dramatic shifts in light as the seasons change reflect the emotional seasons of these two lives. And each chapter begins with an excerpt of a Swedish poem or song lyric, further invoking the culture that brings these women together.
This is a portrait of grief—of its many-faceted manifestations and ramifications—and of the power of human relationships to bring healing. Astrid and Veronika’s unlikely friendship is a reminder that each of us has the potential to offer hope and restoration to another, and to receive that hope and restoration in our own lives, if we are willing to open our soul’s door to a neighbor.