The Blackbird Sings at Dusk by Linda Olsson - book review

by John McCrystal / 24 June, 2016

Help us find and write the stories Kiwis need to read

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)

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