Wonderful Women by the Water by Monika Fagerholm

Drifting before the wind in a boat is something Kayus has to do at least once every summer for the summer to have been a real summer.

Yes. I have a hundred similar things associated with my summers – a twilight swim, reading a book in one sitting on the beach, crispy calamari and homemade lemonade; sitting in my ‘nana chair’ in the shallows…

Wonderful Women by the Water by Monika Fagerholm is a story about the summers of the sixties in Sweden, told from the perspective of a young boy, Thomas, in stream-of-consciousness vignettes.

The story unfolds slowly but as Thomas grows older he becomes increasingly aware of the shifting dynamics between the adults holidaying in cabins alongside him and his parents in ‘paradise’. Some details remain the same from one summer to the next – his games with his friend Renée, midsummer parties, picking bilberries, fishing, having his birthday by the shore –

…it is Renée Angel who has the untidiest hair, the orangest jersey and the spittiest mouth already that summer. Spit-shiny. You know what that means when you see Renée.

But it’s through the changes to those staying in paradise that the story progresses – families come and go, friendships are made and broken.

I enjoyed this story for the quiet and deeply comforting reflections on having summer holidays in the same place every year. Although the reader is left to extrapolate what is happening with the adults for the majority of the book, the last few chapters bring Thomas’s summers to a surprising (and sad) conclusion.

…they had gone round the shops pushing a trolley, getting ready for the summer season and thinking it was possible to buy the roar of the sea and happy laughter on the shore, glowing skin, cool evenings and hot days…

Fagerholm’s style is not going to be for everyone but I did love how she shifted Thomas’s attitude toward his parents in the tiniest of increments. To begin, Thomas attributes his beautiful mother with mystical qualities (she’s a mermaid, he tells everyone) – It had been a kind of competition. You wanted to impress each other with your mothers. But as the years go by, Thomas’s awareness of his mother as an individual grows, and the teen scorn creeps in.

The topic of this book – summer, the beach, lazy days – belies the fact that it’s a story that requires close reading. It may be the writing style or that it is told from a child’s point-of-view, but either way attention is needed to interpret exactly what is going on between the adults in Thomas’s summer paradise.

3/5 Unusual.

Bella makes a bilberry pie. Thomas eats several slices. That night he establishes that he is allergic to bilberries.


5 responses

    • It’s from his perspective and done well. Not a lot happens for the majority of the book but that’s consistent with a child’s interpretation of what’s going on around them (and hence why you have to read carefully).

      Interestingly, the author lives in a Swedish-speaking part of Finland – I never knew there was such a place (or one that is recognised as such).

  1. I can see how this resonates with your own summer holidays. I was singularly unobservant as a child, barely aware that there were adults around me let alone what they might be doing.

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