Book review - Breathless

Set in rural Skåne in southern Sweden, Anne Swärd’s haunting novel traces the life of a young woman unable to let go of her past. Breathless opens with the birth of Lo, looking “nothing like a shiny rose-pink apricot covered with golden down, more like an Eskimo…hair as dark is if it had been dipped into a bottomless lake.” From early on, Lo feels like an outsider in her Nordic family. Aged just six, she befriends her Hungarian neighbour, thirteen-year-old Lukas. Alarmed at the age difference, Lo’s protective family forbid her from seeing him but the two children conspire to meet in a derelict pearl fisher’s house by the lake.

Poor, illiterate and emotionally bruised, Lukas receives regular beatings from his surly father. The two barely communicate, having no language in common. Gabriel has never bothered to learn Swedish and Lukas has forgotten his native tongue, so this brutal physical contact is the only form of interaction between father and son. Lo is inextricably drawn to Lukas and feels a connection with his pain and loneliness.

As children they share a love of Godard's film, from which the novel takes its title, and delight in recreating Jean Seberg’s betrayal of Jean-Paul Belmondo, which becomes a central motif in their own relationship. Like the film, Swärd’s novel is psychologically dense, her central themes are about forbidden love, escape and, like Seberg’s character, Lo suffers from indecision.

After Lo’s fifteenth birthday and a trip to Tivoli, in Copenhagen, something shifts between the two friends that neither can express to the other. Two years later, Lo takes off with Yoel, a fickle man she had employed as a translator to enable Lukas to communicate with his dying father. She moves with him to Stockholm but finds herself unable to settle down.

Lo’s mother had always warned her against falling in love, and as a young woman she shies away from emotional attachment, referring to love as “like lighting a cigarette on a burning curtain, an exaggerated gesture, an excessive risk”. She drifts between jobs and men, unable to return to Lukas but also powerless to forget him. In adulthood, Lo revisits again and again the memories of their secret trysts in the old pearl fisher’s house, reliving in detail their last summer together.

A sense of foreboding pervades this beguiling novel. Swärd is eloquent on love, betrayal, and the complexities of the human heart, and the book’s lyrical quality is beautifully translated by Deborah Bragan-Turner.

Originally published by the Independent 6 June 2012