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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Welcome to America

Linda Boström Knausgård

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To purchase Welcome to America

Title: Welcome to America
Author: Linda Boström Knausgård
Genre: Novel
Written: 2016 (Eng. 2019)
Length: 124 pages
Original in: Swedish
Availability: Welcome to America - US
Welcome to America - UK
Welcome to America - Canada
Bienvenue en Amérique - France
Willkommen in Amerika - Deutschland
  • Swedish title: Välkommen till Amerika
  • Translated by Martin Aitken

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Our Assessment:

A : an exceptionally accomplished work

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Göteborgs-Posten . 20/9/2016 Hanna Jedvik
Le Monde . 8/2/2018 Elena Balzamo
NZZ A+ 24/2/2018 Beatrice von Matt
Svenska Dagbladet . 26/8/2016 Therese Eriksson
Swedish Book Review . (2018:1) Joanna Flower
Die Zeit A 19/9/2017 Wiebke Porombka

  From the Reviews:
  • "Välkommen till Amerika med sin stackatoartade berättelse, poetiska prosa och sina knivskarpa betraktelser blir trots sin klaustrofobiska känsla aldrig för tung att bära. Snarare hjälper romanen till att se på omvärlden med vässad blick." - Hanna Jedvik, Göteborgs-Posten

  • "Bienvenue en Amérique se présente comme une étude au sens musical du terme : un thème de base est varié à l’infini, en acquérant avec chaque nouvelle variation une facette inédite. Une prouesse." - Elena Balzamo, Le Monde

  • "Der Kinderblick kann gnadenlos hart ausfallen, schief, aber auch erbarmenswürdig. (...) Was sie stupend verdichtet zur Sprache bringt, ist vieles auf einmal: Nöte der Selbstwerdung, Vater-Tochter-Verstrickungen, Mutterkonflikte, ein Bruderporträt, Stadt-Land-Spannungen, die frühkindlichen und bald verlorenen Paradieserfahrungen. Vielbödig ist ihre Geschichte und doch, allein aus der Sicht der Elfjährigen erzählt, sowohl ungerecht wie tieftraurig -- ein ergreifendes Kunstwerk." - Beatrice von Matt, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "Heritage, inheritance, genes. There is no escape from our conditioning. With a nod, perhaps, to her own literary heritage, Linda Boström Knausgård deftly employs the Strindbergian preoccupation with psychological warfare and the Nietzschean desire to be the ‘stronger’." - Joanna Flower, Swedish Book Review

  • "Zugleich scharfkantig und überbelichtet ist das Erzählen von Linda Boström Knausgård, zurückhaltend und doch von einer Unbedingtheit, der man sich kaum entziehen kann." - Wiebke Porombka, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Welcome to America is narrated by an eleven-year-old girl -- we only learn well into the novel that her name is Ellen --, a strong-voiced interior monologue that stands in contrast to what is, for those in her world and orbit, her defining and defying trait: as she explains in the novel's opening sentence: "It's a long time already since I stopped talking". The girl has made the conscious choice not to communicate verbally: she refuses to speak, and she has stopped writing down anything as well: "Not speaking and not writing are the same. I can't do one thing and not the other". (Her school tolerates this for an astonishingly long time, though she and her mother are eventually called in to the headmaster's office to discuss the situation.) She barely communicates in any other way to those around her, as well; instead, she drifts along, in the household and, presumably, in school, a presence that is acknowledged and sometimes addressed but ultimately is part of its environment barely differently from a pet animal that one can expect only limited reaction from.
       That her behavior is accepted so readily in this household comes as less of a surprise when she points out that her older brother actually nails his door shut to keep everyone out (though he speaks). And, unsurprisingly, there are other family issues: the parents were divorced, but the father remained a frequent though feared presence, descending further into his mental illness, which also flared up in the violence that set him on the mother (though he never hit the kids) -- and the father recently died. Guilt, incredible guilt, obviously was the main trigger leading Ellen to stop speaking: she had prayed for her father's death, and her prayers were answered. Her feelings are exacerbated by her ambivalence, because she isn't sorry that he died. She knows the family is better off without this difficult, disruptive element in it -- she even acknowledges: "that we were still in a kind of ecstasy after dad had died. How could we have been so fortunate ?" -- but even as she insists:

I never felt guilty about wishing he was dead. It was the best thing.
     Sometimes, though, I felt guilty about him being on his own. At home he'd had us, even when all he could do was lie on the sofa, though occasionally, if he was up to it, he might make us dinner after we'd played cards.
       The mother is a successful actress -- a career she embarked on only after getting married, upending the young couple's life early on, and leading to changes that the father could not adapt to; even as she came into her own and enjoyed success his efforts failed, right down to the getaway cabin they had -- a retreat of more equal footing -- going up in flames and burning down. Ill and then violent, he was hospitalized repeatedly but would always wander back into the family's life, the mother incapable or unwilling to completely cutting him off, though his death then was a sorry lonely one. Ellen only mentions some of his behavior, and the effect on the family, but the deep undercurrent of violence and fear comes across in her descriptions of how desperately she wanted him to die, even thinking of killing him herself, fantasizing about:
thrusting the knife into his chest and twisting it around. It wasn't something I wanted to do, but it was so vital he went away I reasoned that extraordinary measures were called for. I was a child, I wouldn't go to prison. What would happen to me if I killed my dad ? Would I be put into care ? I didn't know, and so I decided on prayer.
       Prayer works -- but the removal of the disruptive element does not make for a newfound balance. The two children turn entirely, coldly inwards in their very different ways; the mother eventually brings other men home, indulging in her flings. Violence also continues to hang in the air: the brother is abusive to Ellen, and she treads warily around him, fearing: "his hands and his rage", and even she acknowledges these impulses that flare up within her, like how she imagined killing the father, or, when the headmaster complains about her silence, raging (silently, inside): "I hated him. I wanted to beat him to a pulp". Hanging over her is that worry that she is in some ways like her father: from the beginning she notes that: "The genes come down hard in our family. Hard and without mercy".
       Welcome to America is very much a novel about a girl on the cusp of adulthood, and her silence is no doubt a reaction to that, a barrier she sets up to keep herself from becoming part of that world, from being adult. Similarly, she avoids looking at herself in the mirror, desperately wanting to avoid seeing how she has changed physically, how she has matured and grown older; silence is a way of holding onto a world escaping her grasp. (The one difficulty with Boström Knausgård's handling of this is that maturity of her narrator's expression, which is at odds with the child the girl is still meant to be.)
       Ellen is (all too) aware of the point she is at. Repeatedly she wonders how to define herself, or how she actually is, whether she is still a child or had somehow lost all hold on childhood and tumbled into the yawning, fathomless abyss of adulthood:
Perhaps I still was little, I wasn't sure. It was hard to place the person I'd become on a timescale. Maybe I was already grown up ? Maybe growing had got me a long time ago ?
       Ellen reminisces a lot, describing memories from the past, good and bad, as well as her present-day drift. Interestingly, at one point, it's her mother that has a sleep-walking episode, and it is Ellen that leads her back to her bed (in which another man is lying); even the mother, who tries to go through the motions as usual, pretending everything is okay, even as her children act out in these extreme ways, is clearly at least somewhat adrift. When the brother brings a girlfriend home there is a distinct change, from his cleaning up his room and stopping nailing his door shut to the mother's obvious relief; only Ellen can't fit herself in the picture -- and worries about this new unbalancing of a familial order that, if nothing else, she was at least accustomed to.
       Ellen also admits to struggling with holding her words back at times -- and is angry at herself about those moments of what she sees as weakness, when she almost said something. Her mother buys her a notebook, but she long doesn't write anything in it; when she finally does pass on one small bit of information, it comes as a great relief to the mother; if not the return of two-way communication, it at least is a more substantial proof that there are cracks in the wall Ellen has so insistently built up around her.
       This interior monologue is beautifully written, short sentences and wending trains of thought that convincingly echo a young girl's thoughts. Boström Knausgård does get carried away with her own artistry and cleverness at times -- there's a maturity to some of this that belies an eleven-year-old's mind -- but beyond that, it is almost pitch perfect in translator Martin Aitken's exceptional rendering; even the very occasional slightly jarring expression -- Ellen noting something like: "It's not easy growing up" -- works in the larger context.
       What Ellen is doing -- in the life she describes, and on the page -- is of course performance. Her mother may be the professional actress -- and a very good one apparently --, surrounded by a world of make-believe and aspiring actors (she gives lessons), but she's also the one who sees (through) Ellen's (what amount to) games and recognizes:
     You're the most theatrical person I've ever met, mum would sometimes say when she was angry with me. So calculatedly mean, she could hiss when her temper got the better of her.
       Ellen doesn't want to admit, or be reminded, that her refusal to speak is, in every sense, an act. It is a necessary one for her, the only outlet she can grab onto, if perhaps not the healthiest. Of course, Boström Knausgård let's her have it both ways here: this narrative is, after all, all that outpouring Ellen has bottled up. She might not be speaking to anyone around her, but she speaks to herself -- and the reader. This of course sort of pulls the rug out from under the whole undertaking: though obviously more powerful as a first-person narrative, by basically completely undermining the whole uncommunicative premise of the novel Boström Knausgård deflates its ultimate impact. It speaks for the strength of the novel otherwise, however, that this hardly matters.
       This is beautifully, disturbingly evocative work of fiction, a journey through a child's mind and eyes of trying to handle and make some order of complex emotional states and varieties of experience, the lens not so much foggy as cautious, a juggling of memories and thoughts and experiences, and an attempt to find and maintain at least a semblance of control over the world around this child verging on but oh so wary of adulthood. If perhaps overly and too readily reliant on mental instability -- as cause, explanation, and fear -- Welcome to America is nevertheless an exceptionally accomplished work.
       (Oh, and perhaps it's worth mentioning: despite the title, there is no traveling to the United States in Welcome to America, which remains a very domestic and local Scandinavian story.)

- M.A.Orthofer, 8 September 2019

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Welcome to America: Reviews: Other books by Linda Boström Knausgård under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Swedish author Linda Boström Knausgård was born in 1972.

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© 2019-2021 the complete review

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