Osebol is a village in Värmland, a province in Sweden. It stands with its back to the broad, beautiful Klarälven (clear river) and is surrounded by pine forests. Its population has shrunk to 40 and most of those who remain are middle aged or old. It is the kind of forgotten place that can be found all over the region. With its modest, red-painted wooden houses, logs stacked under the eaves against the cold dark that is always coming, its mosquitoes in the summer, mud in November and its long, unforgiving winters, it is an unlikely subject for a bestseller. Yet in Sweden, the voices that have come from this ordinary little village have become like an existential meditation on what it is to be alive, to be human, creatures living in time while the river runs on and wolves howl in the woods.
I know Värmland because I married a half-Swede and for the last 30 years – this pandemic year aside – I have been there each summer and winter. To me, a visitor, the area retains its Carl Larsson romance. It means lakes to swim in, woods to forage mushrooms and get lost in, crayfish parties, wild strawberries, soft twilights, silence. The writer Will Dean moved to Sweden and he transforms Värmland’s endless forests and harsh winters into the menacingly grand guignol setting for his twisty thrillers. But Marit Kapla, originally from Osebol, has made her undramatic little patch of Earth into a microcosm of life. Its specificity allows it to be universal.
Kapla, editor of a cultural magazine in Gothenburg, has talked to almost all the remaining 40 inhabitants of Osebol. It is their stories we read in the book, as one by one they speak about their past and their present. The men who have spent their lives working with trees (cutting them down, transporting timber), the home help, the stonemason, the artist, nurse, teacher, the couple who worked with unaccompanied minors from Afghanistan, the women who stayed at home with their children. Many of the voices belong to people who were born in Osebol, like their parents and grandparents before them, but others are from those who have fetched up there from the Netherlands, Poland, East Germany, Hungary, Silicon Valley. Each voice is given equal weight. Garrulous, taciturn, gossipy, warm-hearted, reserved or matter of fact, a character speaks and then they slip quietly away.
No one is introduced or given a context; the name of each speaker and their date of birth (and sometimes death) is in small type at the foot of the page. It is easy to run on from one speaker to the next without realising immediately that the voice has changed and we are in a different consciousness. Crucially, the text is laid out like a poem, or like a river, with line breaks and wide margins. We do not read the words as if they were shaped narratives; instead, we listen to them like something caught on the wind. Sometimes, there are only a few short lines on one page, like this:
of the upstairs window
I saw a salmon
just below the surface
But for the most part the words are not poetic (“It’s just/a bloody valley,/sort of… ”). Some of the people whom Kapla records have adventures to tell (war, domestic violence, depression, cancer, the flight from persecution, staring into life’s abyss). Some talk of feminism (dislike of), racism, class division, poverty. But the majority stay with the small and everyday, the thingness of things: pea soup, knitting itchy woollen stockings as a child, elk in the woods, chanterelles, the work of stripping bark from timber with an axe, wind in the trees. The final words come from a character who is talking about bullfinches:
It’s so beautiful
Where there’s rime-frost on the branches.
They sit there getting warm
When the sun rises.
They’re just like red apples.
Why is this so moving and so strangely beckoning? I think precisely because Osebol bears witness to ordinary lives. It gives us, unmediated, the voices of people who are usually unheard and invites us to pay attention to small things. It’s also a book that has come at just the right moment, when we’re ready to listen to it, because it’s about the many meanings of home, something we’ve come to value more during the pandemic, and what it is to put down roots and belong. As a character says when talking about why he loves Osebol: “That’s where I’ve lived.”
The village is dwindling. Many of its inhabitants are in their 80s or 90s and some have died since they talked to Kapla. If the book feels continuous and renewing, like the Klarälven that runs through the reminiscences, it also reads like an elegy to a world that is fading. Perhaps one day Osebol will only be a ghost village, where once upon a time men and women worked and loved and watched the seasons passing and put wood on the fire and told their stories.