I’ve just finished reading the most beautiful novel, Strega, by Johanne Lykke Holm. I am stuck in it. And on it.
I finished it days ago but my mind still feels trapped in the delicately told domain—A fantastical, once celebrated Hotel secluded in the mountains above the mysterious town of Strega. It’s called The Olympic, where nine 19-year-olds will supposedly be taught how to be turned into proper maids, women, eventual wives and mothers. Three older women mentor the nine, but the story is told through the perspective of Raphaela, a girls whose voice is haunting and lonesome but immediate, succinct, and deeply resonant. I read it in two and a half days, and I’m not exactly a fast reader.
Of course, the ostensible “plot” of the novel is not exactly what pulls you in, although even on its own, with only average prose it would have this capability. Truthfully it’s the one-of-a-kind style in which it’s written, translated from Swedish in fact, that makes it compulsively readable.
The story is told with incredibly ornate, impossible detail. It’s as if muted dead flowers mixed with a tray of metals and crystal diminutives and fragrant oils, inside a strange, old and deviant hotel came alive to hint at its past and warn of the future. Nearly every sentence feels like it took everything from the writers fastidious mind to form itself, and then it took more. And that’s how it reads too—as though the words via some supernatural force possessed someone into airing them out, refusing to be ignored before materializing through bleeding ink on a fresh white page.
The fragility and uniformity and meticulous measure with which each sentence offers itself becomes a quieted mediation, edging toward prayer and mercy, on lonliness, on the unbound love of female relationship. On autonomy and community. But the text isn’t lonely itself, it’s merely strange and dark and unflinching. It reaches out and resonates with the readers own memory, reminders of ones own loves and losses, and maybe most of all, on that undefinable nature of meeting someone and knowing them before they even open their mouths to speak.
Like most books I finish, I felt a total void afterward, because the author pulls you in deep, with mysterious descriptions that somehow poke at something in the depths of you. Places in the body you hardly knew were there. And the dream-like writing, which sometimes snakes into the “everyday descriptive” sort, is done so seamlessly—It’s as if a Murikami novel and a Wes Anderson film had a baby. Of course I had to restrain myself from underlining every other passage of words because they’re so immediate, I swear I smelled rose water the whole time. You’ll get what I mean when you read it. And you WILL read it! You simply must.
Even the cover, smooth matte black with beautiful gothic flowers…it makes you want to go back. The book itself feels like some secret treasure. I keep it in my bag, and I don’t really know why.
Here were a few of my favorite passages…don’t worry, no spoilers.
“I longed for my own room, the locked door, my little cell. I was a lonely person, I had been alone all my life. One is alone even in the company of ones mother. One speaks, and it echoes inside her.”
“The sky laid itself over me like a horse blanket.”
“We came from various places, but were of the same age and mind. None of us wanted to become a housekeeper, and none of us wanted to become a wife. We had been sent here to earn our keep, to become people of society. We were daughters of hardworking mothers and invisible fathers who slunk along the walls.”
“But I did as they had asked of me. I liked being an obedient daughter. It felt like being held by a beautiful patent leather collar.”
“Across the street from my sisters apartment is some student housing. I used to hang out there, by the main entrance, staring at anyone who walked by. They were all carrying bundles of books and wearing those sand-colored wool sweaters, you know, the ones one imagines smell like horsehair or a run ruined by damp. When I saw them, I wanted to spit, but I didn’t, out of self respect. …From my seat on the living room floor, I could see my mother walk u. She had cut out an ad from the newspaper. She called to me, as if I were on the other side of a frozen lake.”
“The tar burned into my lungs and into my fingertips. If you can’t give your body the good stuff, give it the bad stuff.”
“I called them the ghost rooms, not because they were haunted, but because rooms unvisited by humans simply begin to attract evil.”
My favorite one…
“Our parents were all deluded about the fact that the the world had changed and would not go back to being what it once was. They did not believe in a future without the good woman and her duties. They wanted to prepare us for a life where we would care for child and home, where we would stay with one man, no matter who he was, where our hands would repeat the same movements. At the hotel, our hands always repeated the same movements, but this was no place for a good woman.”
“There was something serious and industrious about her forehead.”
“Did you see him, she said during intermission, the murderers face?” I shrugged and bowed my head to hide my blush. I had an urge to put a curse on him or stab him with my knife.”
“I sat up with a jerk, suddenly wide awake. It was as if my body knew something that the brain hadn’t registered. I took out my lighter and quickly crossed the room. Held up the little flame above the beds and counted.. [all eight girls] Cassie was gone. I rushed over to her bed and tore the covers off, my hands searching the sheets, as if she might appear there, doll-size, hidden under the pillow.
…The bed was otherwise untouched, as it had stood since early morning, when the sun billowed in through the window like flames. I crawled across the bed and pressed my my hands to the wallpaper above the headboard, convinced for a moment she had been swallowed by the wall. I walked over and shook Alba. I whispered I can’t find Cassie.
…Her bed stood in the middle of the room, perfectly arranged, like a crime scene.”
Flipping through the book now I simply want to write out chapters so you can swallow them whole. In actuality, the chapters swallowed me whole. But I was ripe for it. I love when books take you that far away from a weekday afternoon.
In other news, this is the third day in a row where I have felt crashed, weak and heavy, and I have to consciously work hard not to fall victim to the fear that my entire health is going down. Crashes happen. I probably pushed it too hard last week. I have to believe that one more day of rest will be enough to pull my out of it. I also have to believe if I still feel this way tomorrow, that’s OK too. I just have to take it easy. So why not wax poetic about a book I love so much it feels like I’m holding a secret treasure, just flipping through the pages.
All will be well, and worrying, as they say, is like a rocking chair: It gives you something to do but get’s you nowhere. I guess that’s the things about to-do lists, they always wait for you until tomorrow. But it’s my sisters birthday, and birthdays don’t wait! I’ll plan for the best. Until then.
Health, Happiness, Stregaaaaa
Thank You Merric, My Eternal, Reliable, Recommender of Incredible Books ;)