As I am not the first to point out, Tomas Bannerhed’s The Ravens makes an interesting companion piece to Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Boyhood Island. Both novels are concerned with a young boy growing up in the Scandinavian countryside with an unpredictable father. In each the protagonists encounter the first stirrings of sexual attraction and the awkwardness of first relationships. Bannerhed, however, takes a more lyrical approach – presumably freed from the constriction of reconstructing his own life – as can be seen from the novel’s title, the ravens representing the damaging thoughts that often crowd the father’s head and eventually lead to his hospitalisation.
Birds of all kinds are to be found The Ravens – when Klas is not at school or avoiding farm work, he will be listening or looking for them:
“Sit on the stone wall and see how many different bird calls I can make out, waiting for the green woodpecker to show herself in her black hole, poke out her bayonet beak and at least say hello.”
His fascination with the woodpecker perhaps suggests that he feels disconnected from his family, and the farm in particular – he talks about “the place you lot call home”. His father’s mantra is that there is too much to be done (“everything’s crowding in on me”), but Klas rarely offers to help. When his father, Agne, says, “You could come with me tomorrow morning and take a look…So you know how it’s done. The sowing.” we sense an old battle, one the father has already lost. Klas does not even fully understand his refusal (“something inside me resisted”), however his wariness of his father is evident from the beginning, as is the way his mother attempts to keep everything on an even keel, immediately diffusing potential flashpoints.
Klas’ life changes when Veronika arrives from Stockholm with her parents who idealistically assume some time in the country will do them all good. Klas invites her birdwatching and, luckily for him, there is so little to do that she agrees. Bannerhed is excellent at portraying the undercurrent of eroticism which exist between them, using a night-time encounter with a bittern to full effect:
“It brushed me with its wing! I got to feel its wing quills against my shoulder!”
Veronika picks up an egg from the nest and places it against her cheek: their discoveries in the darkness seem to be occurring within an inner landscape as well.
All this takes place as Klas’ father’s mental state deteriorates in the background. He moves out of the farm house to stay with the livestock:
“’My place is with the animals, who haven’t got any feeling,’ he explained. ‘That’s where I belong.’”
He grows obsessed with a pile of scrap metal which he feels it is important to bring order to:
“And the scrap metal pile grows taller with every passing night. It doesn’t help that I’m killing myself with all this hard labour. Is there anyone else apart from Sisyphus who can tell me how to do it?”
All this time he feels threatened by the ravens “screeching from the moment I woke.” It becomes clear that the tension around him relates to previous experiences, and the approach of “the thing no-one was allowed to speak of” is inevitable.
Perhaps for this reason, Klas seems determined to disassociate himself from his father’s troubles. When he and Veronika encounter some graffiti proclaiming “Agne heading for the loony bin,” he deflects Veronika’s questions:
“’Is it about a person called Agne?’
‘Seems to be.’”
When finally the ambulance has to be called, he simply hopes “they don’t put the flashing blue light on.”
The Ravens did not make it onto the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize shortlist, but did make it onto our shadow shortlist – a decision uninfluenced by me as I had not finished reading it at the time, but one I now feel was fully justified. It’s a wonderful portrait not only of a young boy coming of age, but of a family dealing with the challenges of mental illness. It’s certainly very assured for a first novel, and suggests that this may not be Bannerhed’s last time on a prize list.