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Collected Works by Lydia Sandgren – an outstanding debut | Fiction in translation

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Martin Berg is a Swedish publisher living in the aftermath of tragedy. More than a decade ago, his wife, a writer and academic named Cecilia, vanished one morning, leaving behind Martin and their two young children, Rakel and Elis. In her outstanding debut novel, Collected Works, translated into propulsive English by Agnes Broomé, Lydia Sandgren tells Martin’s story across two narrative timelines. The novel interweaves his youth and the progress of his life up to Cecilia’s disappearance with events in the present day, where Rakel, his daughter, is preparing a reader’s report on a German novel to which Martin has been offered the rights. It seems, astonishingly, to be about her missing mother.

It’s utterly gripping stuff, and if it didn’t weigh in at more than 700 pages, Collected Works would be one of those books one reads in a single sitting. Sandgren has constructed a delicious combination of a detective thriller with an achingly beautiful extended look at the way youth washes over a group of compelling characters in the last decades of the 20th century, only to leave them stranded in the 21st, wondering what happened. The rendering of the early lives of this core ensemble – Martin, Cecilia, and their closest friend, Gustav Becker, who becomes an internationally renowned painter but has more than a touch of Peter Pan about him, never growing up – is the central achievement of the novel. They are exquisitely drawn in all their gaucheness, their grandness, their vulnerability. It’s like the films of Richard Linklater transmuted to the page.

However, once the characters pass the age of their author, their mid-30s, they become far less clearly executed, as if their motivations and inner workings have disappeared into fog. I loved this book and everything about it for 650 pages, and then, to my astonishment, it dodged all its apparently inevitable denouements, which centre around the tracking down of Cecilia, and the climax that had been building so masterfully was snatched away. As a result, the final impression of the book’s protagonists is that they might all be terrible people; too selfish, scared or indifferent to perform the difficult task of living life well. Why Cecilia left, why Martin never really looked for her, why Gustav kept the secrets he did, are never really explored; and this can’t help but feel like a kind of betrayal of the reader.

Frustrating though it is, perhaps this betrayal is the right conclusion for the novel; what Collected Works chronicles is the near inevitability of life, once lived, feeling as though it’s something lost, perhaps even wasted. If you don’t fail at one thing, you’ll fail at another. I thought throughout the book of a line in Yeats’s Autobiographies: “All life weighed in the scales of my own life seems to me a preparation for something that never takes place.” Sandgren’s deep insight is that the beauty and the wonder of life can become almost unbearable in the memory. So ending the book with the feeling that something has been taken away is not out of keeping with the rest of the work – but it is maddening for the reader all the same.

The journey up to that point, however, is not to be missed. This is a magnificent doorstop of a novel. The joy of huge books is that they become part of your life as you read them; they take time, so that in the future, remembering them becomes a way of recapturing entire seasons in one’s life. Because its story contains so much life, this novel will collect much more after its publication. It deserves to sit on a great many bookshelves, offering a trapdoor back into the moment of its reading. Who knows where the time goes? Fragments of it are saved and stored in novels such as this one.

Collected Works by Lydia Sandgren, translated by Agnes Broomé, is published by Pushkin (£20). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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Martin Berg is a Swedish publisher living in the aftermath of tragedy. More than a decade ago, his wife, a writer and academic named Cecilia, vanished one morning, leaving behind Martin and their two young children, Rakel and Elis. In her outstanding debut novel, Collected Works, translated into propulsive English by Agnes Broomé, Lydia Sandgren tells Martin’s story across two narrative timelines. The novel interweaves his youth and the progress of his life up to Cecilia’s disappearance with events in the present day, where Rakel, his daughter, is preparing a reader’s report on a German novel to which Martin has been offered the rights. It seems, astonishingly, to be about her missing mother.

It’s utterly gripping stuff, and if it didn’t weigh in at more than 700 pages, Collected Works would be one of those books one reads in a single sitting. Sandgren has constructed a delicious combination of a detective thriller with an achingly beautiful extended look at the way youth washes over a group of compelling characters in the last decades of the 20th century, only to leave them stranded in the 21st, wondering what happened. The rendering of the early lives of this core ensemble – Martin, Cecilia, and their closest friend, Gustav Becker, who becomes an internationally renowned painter but has more than a touch of Peter Pan about him, never growing up – is the central achievement of the novel. They are exquisitely drawn in all their gaucheness, their grandness, their vulnerability. It’s like the films of Richard Linklater transmuted to the page.

However, once the characters pass the age of their author, their mid-30s, they become far less clearly executed, as if their motivations and inner workings have disappeared into fog. I loved this book and everything about it for 650 pages, and then, to my astonishment, it dodged all its apparently inevitable denouements, which centre around the tracking down of Cecilia, and the climax that had been building so masterfully was snatched away. As a result, the final impression of the book’s protagonists is that they might all be terrible people; too selfish, scared or indifferent to perform the difficult task of living life well. Why Cecilia left, why Martin never really looked for her, why Gustav kept the secrets he did, are never really explored; and this can’t help but feel like a kind of betrayal of the reader.

Frustrating though it is, perhaps this betrayal is the right conclusion for the novel; what Collected Works chronicles is the near inevitability of life, once lived, feeling as though it’s something lost, perhaps even wasted. If you don’t fail at one thing, you’ll fail at another. I thought throughout the book of a line in Yeats’s Autobiographies: “All life weighed in the scales of my own life seems to me a preparation for something that never takes place.” Sandgren’s deep insight is that the beauty and the wonder of life can become almost unbearable in the memory. So ending the book with the feeling that something has been taken away is not out of keeping with the rest of the work – but it is maddening for the reader all the same.

The journey up to that point, however, is not to be missed. This is a magnificent doorstop of a novel. The joy of huge books is that they become part of your life as you read them; they take time, so that in the future, remembering them becomes a way of recapturing entire seasons in one’s life. Because its story contains so much life, this novel will collect much more after its publication. It deserves to sit on a great many bookshelves, offering a trapdoor back into the moment of its reading. Who knows where the time goes? Fragments of it are saved and stored in novels such as this one.

Collected Works by Lydia Sandgren, translated by Agnes Broomé, is published by Pushkin (£20). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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