The Blackbird Sings at Dusk by Linda Olsson - book review

by John McCrystal / 24 June, 2016
Neighbours become friends, but one has a death wish. Will she choose love or walk towards the light?
LS2416_b&c_Blackbird-singsLinda Olsson’s successful and highly acclaimed 2005 debut novel Let Me Sing You Gentle Songs told the story of a Swedish woman returning from exile in New Zealand, where she has lately loved and lost. Through her developing friendship with a neighbour, she confronts the past. Olsson followed this up in 2008 with Sonata for Miriam, in which a Swedish man exiled in New Zealand returns to Sweden to confront a recent tragedy and bitter memories from the past. In 2011, Olsson published The Kindness of Your Nature (also known, in some countries, as The Memory of Love), in which a Swedish exile living in New Zealand is brought, by a chance encounter with a troubled child, to confront the tragedies in her past.

Olsson’s fourth novel, The Blackbird Sings at Dusk, is the story of a Swedish woman, lately returned from abroad where she has loved and lost. She forms a friendship with two of her neighbours and comes, slowly, to confront the tragedies of her past. Elisabeth is an enigma to her older neighbour, Otto, and her younger neighbour, Elias, until the day she responds to Elias’ moans as he lies in the frozen street outside their Stockholm apartment block following a homophobic assault. This encounter obliges Elisabeth to begin to communicate with the men and to emerge reluctantly from her self-imposed exile.

As the brutal, northern winter releases its grip and first spring and then summer come on, their friendship blossoms. It turns out Elias is a gifted graphic artist, and he presents Elisabeth with a picture of an injured blackbird lying in the snow that was inspired by his first impression of her. He’s further inspired to create a series of images telling the story that he somehow senses in her past. Being dyslexic, he cannot put words to his pictures. Otto is a connoisseur of art, literature and music, but not a creator, but both he and Elias have an inkling that Elisabeth can write – and should write – the text to accompany Elias’ striking images.

Meanwhile, Elisabeth is struggling with a death wish, personified by the almost hallucinatory appearances of the “Woman in Green”. The principal tension in the novel is which she will choose: the path to love, friendship and fulfilment, or a darker path.

Does it work? Well, that depends. If you’re a fan of Olsson’s novels – and she has many followers around the world – you’ll probably forgive its faults. But the obvious literary pretensions may make it hard to swallow. The device – that the anagrammatic Elias and Elisabeth are united by (not to say co-dependent with) the palindromic Otto – is a clue to the problem: the characters have been subordinated to literary cleverness. Of the trio (and Olsson’s regular readers will know the musical resonance is used advisedly), Otto comes closest to being a fully realised character. Elias is no more than a wan outline, and the appeal of Elisabeth, deigning to socialise with them and then forever flopping about wishing she hadn’t once back in her own apartment, is elusive. The element of gothic whimsy – the Woman in Green – is redundant and irritating.

Fans will probably love it, but this rather lethargic working over of an already well-used formula will leave others as cold as any ­Swedish winter.

THE BLACKBIRD SINGS AT DUSK, by Linda Olsson (Penguin, $38)

Follow the Listener on Twitter or Facebook.
MostReadArticlesCollectionWidget - Most Read - Used in articles
AdvertModule - Advert - M-Rec / Halfpage

Latest

Donald Dux: An extraordinary year of President Trump
84715 2017-12-15 00:00:00Z World

Donald Dux: An extraordinary year of President Tru…

by Paul Thomas

Paul Thomas has chronicled the Trump presidency since its beginning and reviews the extraordinary year since The Donald entered the White House.

Read more
Former punk Kody Nielson is heading in a new direction
84445 2017-12-15 00:00:00Z Music

Former punk Kody Nielson is heading in a new direc…

by James Belfield

But it’s no less entertaining.

Read more
The 10 Best Tech Gadgets of 2017
85128 2017-12-15 00:00:00Z Technology

The 10 Best Tech Gadgets of 2017

by Peter Griffin

A round-up of the best and grooviest gadgets from 2017 and previews of top tech tempters for the new year.

Read more
Cervical-cancer screening tests are about to change
84383 2017-12-15 00:00:00Z Health

Cervical-cancer screening tests are about to chang…

by Nicky Pellegrino

Cervical-cancer screening tests have been helping to save lives for more than 25 years. Now the focus of the tests is going to change.

Read more
The 50 Best Champagnes of 2017
85059 2017-12-15 00:00:00Z Wine

The 50 Best Champagnes of 2017

by Michael Cooper

Whatever you call it – fizz, champagne, bubbly, sparkling – wine with bubbles in it is widely adored, especially at this time of the year.

Read more
Star Wars: The Last Jedi – movie review
85062 2017-12-14 11:12:10Z Movies

Star Wars: The Last Jedi – movie review

by James Robins

Star Wars has been cannibalising itself, but The Last Jedi might just be the best one yet.

Read more
Gareth Morgan stands down as TOP leader
85045 2017-12-14 08:27:22Z Politics

Gareth Morgan stands down as TOP leader

by RNZ

The Opportunities Party founder Gareth Morgan says he will stand down as leader of the party.

Read more
Euthanasia bill passes first reading: How the MPs voted
85042 2017-12-14 08:07:28Z Politics

Euthanasia bill passes first reading: How the MPs …

by RNZ

Act leader David Seymour says he was surprised so many MPs supported his bill to legalise euthanasia. It'll now go to select committee.

Read more