The Kindness of Your Nature by Linda Olsson is the April choice for the ANZ LitLovers book group, nominated by one of our Kiwi members. It is one of the most arresting books I’ve read recently.
Olsson lives in New Zealand but she was born in Sweden and in her writing there is a kind of spare beauty that I have come to associate with Scandinavian and Nordic writing: a sense of windswept places, cleansing bracing weather, an awareness of seasons and an elegant sensuality that is focussed on texture and light. (And this is perhaps why I was so peeved by the verbosity and self-indulgence of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s A Death in the Family. It seemed so Californian!) (Sorry, California, but you know what I mean).
As I had passed through Raglan I slowed down and took the narrow road that snaked high above the sea. I found a spot where I could drive off the road and park, and went and sat on a grassy patch overlooking the sea. From here, the ocean was different from the one I lived with back home on my beach. Blindingly sparkling, turquoise blue, so intense it made the bright blue sky pale by comparison. Although I knew the waves were crashing far below, up there I could hear nothing. The sea looked alluringly peaceful, a glittering blue-green eternity. The light wind rustled the stands of flax that covered the slope below. (p. 152)
The Kindness of Your Nature has an elegiac tone. From the outset the reader knows that the narrator, Marion Flint, has been badly damaged by childhood trauma although the cause is not revealed until she eventually is able to retrieve memories long suppressed. This technique works well: there is the here-and-now, telling the events that trigger her memories and revealing her dawning awareness that only confronting her painful past will enable her to live fully in the present. Then there are vignettes from the past, building the tension through the narrative as both Marion and the reader piece together shards of her life history so that they begin to form a coherent whole.
Through all this there is Ike, the catalyst for her reappraisal of her life. Found battered and bruised on the lonely seashore, this little boy offers hope of redemption. Fate, however, has thrown this damaged child into the path of another damaged human being, and the way forward is not only not clear but also blocked by bureaucratic processes designed to protect children like this.
Inside, I put him down on the sofa in the living room. He looked so small, much younger now with his eyes closed and his body limp, than in his normal active state. I hesitated a moment before I began to remove his wet clothes. From the early stages of our relationship I had instinctively realised he didn’t like to be touched. Only a few times – when I had had to treat his hair for lice, or dress a cut – had I ever been allowed to touch him, and I had been very careful to make him understand that I respected his need for distance. He shied away from even the most casual touch.
But here I was gently pulling off his T-shirt and exposing his skinny chest. I could count the ribs. I pulled the shirt over his head and gently laid his head to rest on the cushion, then I stopped abruptly and my hands fell into my lap.
I looked down on the small child.
And I began to cry again. Unable to stop myself, I kept whispering under my breath, ‘No, oh, no.’ I squeezed the balled-up T-shirt in my hands.
There were dark bruises underneath his arms, as if someone had lifted him violently. Around his neck, as if someone had tried to strangle him. I bent forwards and gently turned him onto one side. There was a large dark bruise on the torso, over the kidney. And there were fainter older bruises beside the fresh ones. (p. 52)
I think all of us yearn for new beginnings for damaged children, but Olsson is too skilful a writer to offer platitudes. Ike is difficult. Whether he was always difficult or whether it is as a consequence of his experiences in the end is irrelevant. He is not a cute and cuddly kid who is easy to love. He is artistic and musical but he is uncommunicative, and he doesn’t like to be touched. His grandmother is difficult too, and under the policy of keeping children with their families wherever possible she has rights which seem incompatible with Ike’s needs.
The tragedy of Marion losing the love of her life twice over seems far-fetched and so does the resolution of this vexed situation, but as she says early in the novel:
…But far-fetched things do happen. In fact, many people’s entire lives are completely far-fetched. I think we are constantly surrounded by extraordinary possibilities. Whether we are aware of them or not, whether we choose to act on them or not, they are there. What is offered to us that we choose not to act upon falls by the wayside, and the road that is our life is littered with rejected, ignored and unnoticed opportunities, good and bad. Chance meetings and coincidences become extraordinary only when acted upon. Those that we allow to pass us by are gone forever. We never know where they night have taken us. I think they were never meant to happen. The potential was there, but only for the briefest moment, before we consciously or unconsciously chose to ignore it… (p.27)
It’s a very beautiful book and despite its melancholy subject matter, profoundly optimistic. I shall be looking out for more by this author.
Olsson’s debut novel Let Me Sing You Gentle Songs was published in New Zealand in 2003 and became an international success in Scandinavia, Europe and the United States. It was followed by the heart-breaking and moving Sonata for Miriam, which was nominated for the IMPAC Dublin Award in 2009.
And one can only wonder about the absence of reviews of this tender and reflective story in the Australian print media. Is it parochialism on the part of our book reviewers or is it poor promotion by the NZ book industry?
Author: Linda Olsson
Title: The Kindness of Your Nature
Publisher: Penguin New Zealand, 2011
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Fishpond $26.86
Fishpond: The Kindness of Your Nature