A girl drowns in a red plastic raincoat, in a marsh, beyond the house in the darker woods, perhaps not too far from the city by the sea. Which is Helsinki, I think, because the novel alludes to the summit meeting held there in August 1975 when all Europe, the United States, and Canada signed the Final Act concerning the inviolability of human rights and national sovereignty. Which has been violated over and over again in the thirty-four years since. But the Helsinki meeting has little to do with this novel -- a rather tricky one at that -- except to act as a framing device of sorts, so the reader -- me, in this case -- won't get lost. Although for much of the novel, I was lost, pleasantly so, because I trusted the author, I knew I was in good hands, and I sensed she would get me to where I wanted to go. Which she did, eventually.
Richard Hell, Tom Verlaine, Television and the New York Dolls are all in the novel too, part of the scene, back then in the 1970s, making the frame a little bigger, because our author, Monika Fagerholm, needs a pretty big frame if she's going to fit all the pieces of her narrative inside it, her tricky little puzzle pieces.
I won't come back to the red raincoat, because it is a very important puzzle piece, one you'll want to find a place for yourself, when you read this novel. But I will say this about it -- it was as ominous and tactile as the red raincoat in Don't Look Now, if you happen to remember that very ominous and tactile movie, based on the Du Maurier novel. You must remember the couple's little girl who drowns in a red raincoat -- it sets the whole creepy thing in motion. And then, later on, in Venice, there's the hideous and sinister figure they glimpse who is wearing the same red coat. Which freaks them out, so they go back to their hotel and screw themselves silly, because, you see, it's a Nicholas Roeg movie and he had his obsessions. Everyone does.
There are two other girls in this novel -- actually there are many other girls, all vividly drawn, and somehow at odds with each other, despite their obvious simpatico -- named Sandra and Doris, two very different, yet very imaginative girls, who love one another in a certain way, but who primarily compose and act out complex narratives which undermine their credibility as story-tellers in the actual novel, which starts to get very tricky at times. These girls too will remind you of a movie, this time, that upsetting but true tale of two murdering girlfriends in New Zealand called Heavenly Creatures, which introduced Kate Winslet to the world, among other things. Their lesbianism, you'll recall, was just part of the upholstery of their play-world, not a big deal by itself, just the way it is in this novel.
It's rather amazing how such a deliberately paced, elliptical narrative comes to so closely approximate the immediacy of cinema. This Monika Fagerholm is some writer, that she can make this happen. So, for the whole time I was reading The American Girl, I knew I was being entertained, in a high-toned way, musically, or cinematically, speaking, and that was too delightful, the way she did it, all with words, expertly placed, one after the other. Other writers have tried it recently, but very few with such sparkling results.
I've written too much already, otherwise I'll give away the game, which would be a shame since you really should experience this novel for yourself. It's not profound, or life-changing, just hypnotizing and somewhat unsettling, in a good way. I know not everyone is going to go for a long Swedish novel written so stylishly, filled with allusions to things that went on three, four decades ago. It asks a lot of its readers. I probably missed a lot, for instance.
But I just read the translation in manuscript a week ago and the book isn't coming out till next February. I know the publisher will have galleys long before then, so I can check to see if I got it all right.