05/28/2024

Some Crim

Track the Untold Stories

Toxic by Helga Flatland trs by Matt Bagguley @OrendaBooks @HelgaFlatland

Toxic by Helga Flatland trs by Matt Bagguley @OrendaBooks @HelgaFlatland

Source: Review copy
Publication: 23 May 2023 from Orenda Books
PP: 300
ISBN-13: 978-1916788138

My thanks to Orenda Books for an advance copy for review

When Mathilde is forced to leave her teaching job in Oslo after her relationship with eighteen-year-old Jacob is exposed, she flees to the countryside for a more authentic life.

Her new home is a quiet cottage on the outskirts of a dairy farm run by Andres and Johs, whose hobbies include playing the fiddle and telling folktales – many of them about female rebellion and disobedience, and seeking justice, whatever it takes.

But beneath the apparently friendly and peaceful pastoral surface of life on the farm, something darker and more sinister starts to vibrate and, with Mathilde’s arrival, cracks start appearing … everywhere.

Helga Flatland’s writing is exceptional. She takes everyday situations and without inserting any false dramatic notes, lets the reader understand that the drama lies in what’s going on underneath the obvious.

Toxic starts with the story of Johs , a farmer living in the house which once belonged to his grandparents; his parents now live elsewhere on the family’s dairy farm. Once he thought he would take over the farm; of the two sons, he is the one who is a natural farmer, while his brother Andres has flirted from job to job, until finally coming home to claim his inheritance. So ostensibly the two brothers run the farm together, but in reality, Johs is the one who makes the decisions. Johs lives in the farmhouse, while Andres lives in the village with his wife Kristin and their children.

Toxic is set during Covid and we learn very quickly that Andres is one of those who is perpetually frightened by the idea of catching it, to the extent of almost paranoia.

Flatland gives us just enough about this family’s history to realise that the family has been overshadowed by their grandfather, Johannes, one of the country’s most talented Hardanger fiddle players. The spectre of Johannes casts a huge shadow over the family and in flashbacks we learn of his insistence on playing and telling old folk tales about women and the way they made men suffer. But Johs and Andres mother, Signe, is also a strong matriarch and her voice, when she uses it, is unchallenged.

Johs is a music tutor to young Viggo, but even he knows he does not come close to reaching the prowess of his grandfather. Still he persists, as if it were his duty and what the village expects from him.

Then we meet Mathilde. She is a teacher in Oslo, but her actions bring her career to an abrupt end and she feels the best way forward for her is to move to somewhere new. She wants somewhere rural and isolated, mostly because it will be cheap, but also because she convinces herself she will be able to clear her head and start writing a novel. So she moves to a cottage in the yard of Johs and Andres’ family farm.

There are so many contrasts in lifestyles that it is hard to see how Mathilde can possibly fit in to this small community. Mathilde has lived the modern, somewhat uninhibited life of a city dweller unencumbered by traditions, or having to know her neighbours. Johs, on the other hand has never known or wanted to know about city life. The cultural clash between these characters is strong.  How can she belong here? In this rural environment, everyone has their own preconceived notions about Mathilde.

At her urging, Johs tries to tries to teach Mathilde how to play the fiddle in a bid to understand and fit in with this family whose farm she is living on. Flatland gives us the contrasting thoughts of life on this farm from both Johs and Mathilde and it is fascinating to see the same story from two different perspectives.

Of the two characters, it is easier to find some sympathy with Johs, who has lived his whole life in someone else’s shadow, whether that be his grandfather, his mother or his brother. He has achieved no-one’s expectations for himself, least of all his own. Flatland gives you an impression of a large man with a personality that he keeps hidden. Helga Flatland’s three dimensional characters and the strong images her writing conjures in the reader’s mind allow the reader to see these characters going about their daily business.

Mathilde has a troubled background, but that does not account for her flagrantly inappropriate behaviour in Oslo. She is the catalyst for the cracks that slowly begin to get wider on the farm and she has an inability to ever take any responsibility for her actions. Narcissistic and obsessive, she thinks she knows what she wants and will not stop to consider the consequences of taking it.

Helga Flatland does not shy away from showing us how an entire village, even its children, can turn its back on an outsider. The old folk tales so beloved of Johannes show the kind of moral authority that this village still has at its heart and of the way that the only transgressions that can be accepted are those that come from the villagers themselves.

A toxic person is anyone whose behaviour adds negativity and upset to your life. Often, people who are toxic are dealing with their own stresses and traumas. To do this, they act in ways that don’t present them in the best light and usually upset others along the way. A toxic relationship is one that makes you feel unsupported, misunderstood, demeaned, or attacked. A relationship is toxic when your well-being is threatened in some way—emotionally, psychologically, and even physically.

These definitions fit so well into the essence of this book that it is easy to see why Helga Flatland chose it for the title. Just where the toxicity is coming from is not necessarily as obvious as it might seem. This is such a clever title for a beautifully observed book dealing with flawed human beings in a close knit family and an interdependent community. It is both engaging and compelling with an ending that allows you to draw your own conclusions.

Matt Bagguley’s translation manages to convey the contrasts in personalities and upbringing alongside Flatland’s impeccable writing.

This is a clever title for a beautifully observed book dealing with flawed human beings in a close knit family and an interdependent community. Flawlessly written, it is both engaging and compelling with an ending that allows you to draw your own conclusions.

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Helga Flatland is one of Norway’s most awarded and widely read authors. Born in Telemark, Norway, in 1984, she made her literary debut in 2010 with the novel Stay If You Can, Leave If You Must, for which she was awarded the Tarjei Vesaas’ First Book Prize. She has written four novels and a children’s book and has won several other literary awards. Her fifth novel, A Modern Family, was published to wide acclaim in Norway in August 2017, and was a number-one bestseller. The rights have subsequently been sold across Europe and the novel has sold more than 100,000 copies. A Modern Family marked Helga’s first English publication when it was released in 2019, achieving exceptional critical acclaim and sales, and leading to Helga being dubbed the ‘Norwegian Anne Tyler’. 

Matt Bagguley grew up in the UK Midlands before moving to Oslo in 2001. Originally a musician and designer, he now works as a full-time translator of Norwegian to English and has translated a range of titles within publishing and film, including Joachim Trier’s Oscar-nominated comedy-drama The Worst Person in the World, Simon Stranger’s historical novel Keep Saying Their Names, and Nora Dåsnes’s graphic novel Cross My Heart and Never Lie, which recently won the Stonewall Book Award.