Book Review: Jagganath, by Karin Tidbeck

Do you like deliciously creepy, peculiar, strange short stories? You’re probably going to like Jagganath, which will take you on a whirlwind of adventure through strange magic, oddness, and weirdly compelling settings and people. As Tidbeck freely admits in her author’s note at the end of the book, these stories definitely have a Nordic feel, written in a Scandinavian tradition that’s both old and delightful, but don’t be fooled by that. There’s more to the Nordic tradition than the Nordic Noir infatuation that swept the US in the wake of Stieg Larssson.

Let’s start with her language, though, because it’s really fascinating, and so is the story behind it, which Tidbeck got into in her author’s note. She writes in both English and Swedish, and she translates her own work, which isn’t unheard of, but is pretty unusual. And the way she writes about language and her experiences as a writer is totally fascinating; as she points out, you feel your native language in your blood, and it can be hard to write, let alone translate, into another language, to get the feel and tone and style of words and framings that are different and sometimes difficult.

There are concepts in Swedish that she says just don’t translate, and sometimes she struggled with how to make them understandable to Swedish readers. Conversely, of course, there are things in English that simply do not work in Swedish, requiring a translator to carefully massage and wrestle with the words to get them across to the reader; and all of this has to be done in a way that makes it look effortless, that keeps the text seamless and smooth and beautiful. This is challenging work, and it adds to the impressive accomplishments of this short story collection.

I also really loved her note about how sometimes it’s difficult to push your native tongue to the ultimate because you’re standing in the middle of it. She pointed out that sometimes foreign speakers do things you thought weren’t possible, or approach language in a totally new way. I’m used to hearing a lot of biased, nasty comments about people speaking new languages, but this is one of the few times I’ve heard someone talk about it as a positive, as something that could even be beneficial from a writing or communication perspective.

Tidbeck’s language is often plain and stark, but it’s also very evocative. There’s a crisp attention to detail that makes each scene stand out, and brings the characters to life in vivid colour, even though we only stay with them for a few pages. It makes each story seem almost larger than it is, creating churning thoughts that spin in your head after you finish and move on to the next, or set the book down to take a break. This is a short story collection that can be savoured, unlike Ancient, Ancient, which demanded a kind of frenzied consumption.

It’s also a very slim collection, but don’t hold that against it. There’s a lot packed into this tiny book, and it definitely bears reading and re-reading for all the complex notes going on inside it. The stories are steeped in Swedish mythology (including one that takes the form of a report on a cryptid), and yet they aren’t quaint or cutesy; this is the creepy side of mythology, the stuff that’s supposed to make you nervous about going to sleep at night. There may be fairies and seers, but they are most definitely not the nice kind.

A lot of these stories are about strange creatures, infused with a mix of folklore and the ‘tales of the strange’ tradition from the US. The title story narrates the tale of a creature born deep within the belly of a mysterious ‘Mother,’ while others feature creations made in cans and brought to life, and strange pods that seem to burst open and emit something human-but-not-quite. These stories leave a little tingly feeling and a sense of deep suspicion about the outside world and the things that inhabit it.

One of my favourite pieces was ‘Reindeer Mountain,’ surrounding the myth of the vittra, fairy-like people who live in remote areas of the mountains, and two girls coming back to their family home for the summer to help their mother clear it out. The whole story takes place in a kind of dreamlike setting, and is told from the point of view of the younger sister, who is jealous of her older sibling’s connections with the supernatural world and her vittra-like appearance. When she tries to make contact with them on Midsummer night, something happens, but it’s definitely not what she expected, and her family is forever changed by the incident.

Tidbeck explores a couple of different narrative styles in this collection, but tends, wisely, to stick to clear text with no adornments or artifices, which just makes the storytelling that much eerier. She’s well aware that distracting readers with flash might accomplish just the opposite of her goals, and she wields the pen deftly in both her translations and original English stories. This is only her first collection, so I suspect we have more to see from her, and I would love to see a novel-length work, because I suspect it would be a wonderful explosion of strange that would occupy a rightfully deserved place in fantasy canon.