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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

October Child

Linda Boström Knausgård

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To purchase October Child

Title: October Child
Author: Linda Boström Knausgård
Genre: Novel
Written: 2019 (Eng. 2021)
Length: 234 pages
Original in: Swedish
Availability: October Child - US
October Child - UK
October Child - Canada
  • Swedish title: Oktoberbarn
  • Translated by Saskia Vogel

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Our Assessment:

B : strong writing, but juggling a lot here

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Publishers Weekly . 23/4/2021 .
Svenska Dagbladet . 29/8/2019 Therese Eriksson

  From the Reviews:
  • "Swedish novelist Boström Knausgård brilliantly melds memoir and speculative nonfiction in her stirring account of the four years she spent in and out of a psychiatric ward. (...) Part fever-dream, part quest to retrieve her memories (“because what good is a writer without her memory ?”), Boström Knausgård’s account expertly plumbs the treacherous crevasses of a creative mind." - Publishers Weekly

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:

       Linda Boström Knausgård writes from experience. October Child is a novel, but, like her previous work, closely based on her own experiences; so also, the narrator is even named 'Linda'. Complicating matters, she was married to a man whose own work often draws even more closely from his -- and her -- life, and who has written about it extensively -- Karl Ove Knausgaard, in his My Struggle-sextet. He and their marriage (and then divorce) also figure prominently here, with several of the episodes in October Child familiar from his work, just now presented from a different perspective. Karl Ove Knausgaard remains unnamed in Boström Knausgård's book, but is often referred to as "you", making October Child feel even more like a personal reckoning. It all adds up to October Child being not only convincingly true-to-life, but also discomfitingly close-to-actual-lives, a kind of candor some readers might prefer to see less of in our fiction .....
       The focus of October Child is the electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) the narrator was subjected to, specifically between the years 2013 to 2017. Much of the novel describes her stays at what she calls 'the factory' and the detested treatment that seems to have done little good and always came with the worry of significant memory-loss. As she notes, it is always an ordeal: "You never get used to the treatment".
       Linda suffers from some mental illness, apparently some form of sometimes overwhelming depression. Oddly, the book fails to give much of a sense of what exactly she goes through and feels when she is not institutionalized. When she is at the factory, the treatment, the fear and loathing of it, and how she acts and interacts around and with the people there give a good picture of her state of mind and condition there, but it's much less clear in her everyday life. What incidents she describes, from breaking up with a perfect-seeming boyfriend in her teens to a suicide attempt, are mostly shrouded in vagueness, with little sense of the accompanying state of mind or reasoning. There is some description of feeling, but it too is often fairly basic and general -- so also even when she does go on at a bit greater length:

     Depression's torpid darkness, its void and waking death, it's what awaits me when I sink deeper. To where there are no words, no consciousness, just dull slumber, morning, noon, and night, the anxiety enveloping every cell.
     Each morning when you wake up, the fear when you finally realize, with every part of you and with every thought. You are awake.
       Her anger at what she is subjected to at the factory comes across better. She condemns the practice of ECT, and specifically the Swedish enthusiasm for it -- noting: "In the whole wide world, the country of Sweden conducts the most electroconvulsive therapy per capita" --, as well issues such as patient consent (not needed in cases such as hers of those involuntarily committed). [For an overview, see e.g. Electroconvulsive Therapy in Sweden 2013.] The picture she presents, especially of the medical professionals' lack of interest in actually determining whether or not the treatment does any good is disturbing; almost comic, if they weren't so shocking, are the encounters with the chief physicians -- an ever-changing cast of characters who only spend a few minutes with the patient and seem entirely oblivious to their concerns or the actual effectiveness of the treatment.
       Linda's greatest concern is about losing memories, as the one known consequence of the treatment is memory loss: "everyone agrees that it has a severe impact on the memory. Everyone". But: "Memories had a low status in the factory".
       One of the chief physician's attempts to be helpful is typical of the misunderstanding she faces
     I said I was an author and that I needed my memories.
     Only then did he look at me and say that the memories would come back. They always do. Sooner or later. Perhaps not all of them, definitely not all of them, but it's hard, if not impossible, to find a treatment that's free of side effects. You understand, don't you ? You can always make things up. Isn't that what authors do ?
       (She does not react well to that -- one instance where she doesn't have to explain her reasoning to the reader and it's still perfectly clear.)
       Strikingly, however, she admits to having few good memories, especially of growing up. Memory seems also to be an enormous burden. She entertains some thought of perhaps being better off without it but doesn't consider this nearly as much she might; it would have been an interesting thought-experiment to spin out further.
       Still, the strongest parts of the novel are her recollections, especially of her youth and adolescence. Her parents were divorced, with her father also mentally ill and then institutionalized; he's not much of a presence here, but Linda does point out; "He didn't want to be healthy". We also get some sense of her difficulties in making her feelings known to the adults in the room -- or generally conveying them to anyone, also in adulthood. (Indeed, the book suggests she has difficulty figuring them out for herself -- or the reader.) She was very close to one of her mother's boyfriends, but they broke up; when they did, he pointed out what her mother is oblivious to:
(Y)our daughter never says what's on her mind. Have you noticed ? She only says what she thinks will make things easier for you, and in between she has those outbursts.
       One way Linda can express herself, about some things, is in her writing. She always knew she would be an author (well, after she realized she couldn't follow in her mother's footsteps as an actress), and:
     I have always held myself in high esteem. No one needed to tell me I was good at writing. I knew it, deep down, even in the years I wasn't writing
     I've always known I can write as though it were a matter of life or death.
       It all makes for an odd mix of a novel. The sections in the factory are disturbing and occasionally harrowing but, even with the variety of figures she interacts with -- notably the staff --, all too familiar sounding: this is just a variation on a story and conditions we've heard about and seen before. Her descriptions of her adult family-life, including then the break up of her marriage, feel too rawly close and personal, more like sketches of material that hasn't been fully worked through. The most intriguing glimpses and scenes are those of her formative years -- including time spent abroad and a youthful independence and freedom --; there's a lot more biography here for her to flesh out in future volumes, but it's already the richest part of this novel.
       The writing in October Child is often strong, especially about things she feels strongly about, including writing itself. As an account of struggling with mental illness it falls short, in simply not conveying what she is going through so much of the time. As an indictment of the (medical) treatment of the mentally ill, especially in institutions such as 'the factory', October Child hits the mark -- but then those are the easiest of pickings.
       While it impresses in many of its parts, October Child is far from a satisfying work as a whole.

- M.A.Orthofer, 12 June 2021

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October Child: 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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© 2021 the complete review

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