Editor’s Note: Over many years our book reviews have been ably managed by Carol Martin and the late Peggy MacKinnon. We appreciate all their work and dedication to the Observer. Jane Shipp has agreed to step in their shoes and take over the Book Review column. Thanks, Jane.
The Memoirs of Stockholm Sven By Nathaniel Ian Miller. 2021. Little, Brown and Company.
Experienced readers–especially passionate readers – judge a novel in at least two ways: by the beauty of its language and the skill which the writer has in the use of that language, and by the believability of the characters and the plot. We want to care about those who come alive in a book, and about what happens to them. The Memoirs of Stockholm Sven, a debut novel by Nathaniel Ian Miller, has both characteristics, in spades. It is the kind of book that warrants reading a second time, or a third and fourth.
At first glance the novel does not seem appealing. It is set on various island territories north of Norway and above the Arctic circle, in a bleak, frigid and threatening landscape. The character himself seems bleak: cynical and bitter and self-isolating. He has little care for his family, except for his sister and her two children. Sven is a somewhat unreliable narrator of his own story, however. Despite his protestations, it is clear that there is more warmth in his soul than he is willing to acknowledge.
Sven takes a temporary job as a coal miner on the island of Spitzbergen, in the Arctic Sea. A catastrophic event there leaves him disfigured and half blind; he is nursed back to relative health by a genial Scottish geologist, but his physical disability mirrors his emotional void. To escape the pity he reads in the eyes of the other residents of the mining camp, Sven resolves to live alone, and moves further away from civilization, learning the “art” of trapping from Tapio, one of a trio of Finns, and an ardent socialist.
Using what he has learned about survival on the ice, Sven builds a hut and begins trapping, selling the pelts to earn a meager living. His much desired solitude is broken by a surprise arrival who causes him first shock, then dismay followed by acceptance, and finally affection. There follow many minor characters and an array of events, some violent – Miller spares no detail, and he paints a careful picture of daily life and its ethos among people who are generally outcasts from civilization. It is not always a pretty picture, but it contains plenty of warmth and humor, and a convincing portrait of the natural beauty of the area.
Miller resists the temptation to wrap his main characters in the coziness of a happy ending, as so many authors are prone to do. On the other hand, the overriding tone of the book is one of guarded optimism. A number of its characters support Sven along the way, despite his prickly personality, his disfigured face and his determination to avoid human contact. Little by little he warms to their kindness, battling his way toward normality. There is a convincing ray of light at the end, all the more believable in its contrast to what has gone before. It is well worth waiting for. The book is a pleasure to read, a real page turner.
On April 19, Miller will participate in a Zoom conversation sponsored by Kent Memorial Library; see the library’s website for further information. It will be a remarkable opportunity, one not to be missed. Miller is a debut author who, we must hope, has just begun!