Outside Helsinki, in a marshy rural district, two young girls meet at a pivotal moment in their lives. It is the late 1960s, and Sandra Wärn and Doris Flickenberg have each suffered trauma. Together they use fantasy and play to begin to explore their families, sexuality and identities. Much of their energy goes into understanding the mystery of the American girl who had drowned in Bule Marsh.
In Monika Fagerholm's brilliant novel, THE AMERICAN GIRL, translated from the Swedish, Sandra and Doris come to age in a time of rebellion, gender politics and social-cultural change. They are drawn to the strange life and tragic death of Eddie de Wire, who came from America to Finland, broke at least two hearts, alienated her own family and wrecked havoc on Doris's before her death in the marsh. With only a few secondhand quotes, some ephemera and the District's collective though mostly silent memory, the girls try to reconstruct her life and make meaning of her death. But Eddie's passing is not the only tragedy with which the girls must deal. Doris's abusive parents are in prison, and she now lives with her cousins in a family --- already on the brink --- that was practically destroyed by the American girl. Sandra's mother is gone, and she lives in a dark and creepy house with her father who keeps company with whores and hunters.
From the kind-hearted stripper Bombshell Pinky Pink to Doris's angry cousin Rita Rat, from the drunken and damaged Bengt to Eddie's surviving sisters, Doris and Sandra, together and apart, move from relationship to relationship, game to game, story to story, as they each grow up and try to forge an identity that carries them past so much loss, abandonment, fear and violence. And it just may be that each girl has a well-guarded secret or two as well.
“The District” as a setting --- so close to the “city by the sea” --- is one of paradox. Sandra and Doris live in a bucolic landscape, yet there is imminent danger as well. They are beholden to social rules, but there are few adults present or capable of enforcing them. The young people of the District are playactors, mapmakers, writers and designers, and keepers of secrets, but there is little hope that their dreams, often borne of disappointment, will come to fruition. The world Fagerholm creates is at once enchanted and terrible.
Fagerholm's prose is dazzling and dizzying, and the story strange and beautiful. She plays with many of the conventions of post-modernism (a disdain for traditional sentence structure, plot progression and reliable narration), but these are transformed here into something magical, frightening, lyrical and wholly compelling. THE AMERICAN GIRL is far from an easy read: it moves quickly back and forth through time, is told from the point of view of many characters who often re-tell the same stories repeatedly with shifting perspective, and her writing style is choppy and repetitive. The commitment to this award-winning novel is rewarded, though, as Fagerholm brings together her many woven strands in unexpected and satisfying ways.
A dark tale of murder, love, sexuality and friendship, THE AMERICAN GIRL is the first part of a two-book series. Danger, attraction, belonging and repulsion all have their place in this deeply psychological and highly recommended, challenging and unforgettable mythic story.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on December 22, 2010
The American Girl