Wonderful Women by the Sea, by Monika Fagerholm


Well, yesterday was a busy night with many things to think about, but I mostly need to think about something else than the Quebec provincial election results, so I’d better concentrate on one of my favorite things, books. Much more comforting than politics, IMHO.

Thanks to the always interesting phenomenon of changing European borders and linguistic politics (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swedish-speaking_population_of_Finland , here is a book from a famous Finnish writer who belongs to the Swedish minority in Finland. Well enough about that angle…

Wonderful Women by the Sea was Fagerholm’s first novel. Published in 1994, it starts in 1962 and presents some snippets of life seen mostly through the eyes of a seven-year-old boy. His family spends summers in a rented sea-side cottage and little Thomas casts admiring eyes on both parents and endlessly puzzles at the wonders of life around him. He befriends the somewhat odd daughter of a neighboring family, Renee, who accompanies him in his adventures and often instigates some of the stranger things that they do. She eventually becomes a champion sailor.

His mother, Isabella, is nicknamed Isabella Mermaid due to a summer job she had when she met her husband Kayus. The book opens with this paragraph:

One time Kayus was throwing balls at the mermaids at the amusement park. Each mermaid lay or sat on a green shelf above the pool. The shelf gave way and swung down whenever the ball scored a direct hit on the pink board below the shelf. The mermaid screamed, fell, and landed in the shallow water, which was barely higher than her knees. Again and again Kayus aimed at the same spot on the board. Again and again Isabella fell, again and again she screamed, the same brief shrill scream, which was not beautiful but certainly not inaudible, a scream that began to haunt Kayus so that it reverberated in his head all the time, even when he was not at the amusement park.

Kayus is a very serious engineer who loses his sense of fun somewhere in the book.

Isabella befriends Renee’s mother Rosa. They spent many a sunny summer afternoon lazing around together and discussing what they really want from life. Summer after summer, the families return to their “summer paradise” until one day, someone changes the rules… The tone in which the book is written really changes much before the actual event, from one of childish innocence and hopefulness to waiting for something dreadful to happen.

One day, Bella and Rosa decide to go to Copenhagen for a few days. Apparently, Bella decides not to return to her life as wife of Kayus and mother to Thomas, and abandons them.  Her dissatisfaction with the routine of her life as a mother and wife wins out over her loyalty to her family and all the wonderful moments they had created together.

Maybe she felt that those moments had imprisoned into a definition of herself, Isabella Mermaid, that was limiting and she needed to search for herself again.

Eventually Thomas grows up into a quiet young man, while Renee meets with a stupid, tragic end that quite reflects the recklessness with which she approached all situations even as a child.

So, this is where how it ends up for Thomas, in 1973, which the promise of a life rich in experiences to come:

But now Kayus has turned up the sound on the television because he is anxious not to disturb Thomas. He is pleased that his son has a girlfriend, a sensible girl who comes to see him.

Whereas Renee, who meets with one of the kids from the seaside cottage days, goes on an ill-fated boat ride with him:

Renée and Lars-Magnus Lindbergh are clinging to the foredeck. There, somewhere, Lars-Magnus Lindbergh loses sight of Renée. She just disappears, swept off deck, sinks, is lost. Then Lars Magnus is alone in the cold and the dark, drifting with the boat. Then there is no longer a boat.


Fagerholm, Monika, Wonderful Women by the Sea, The New Press: New York, 1997. (original published in Swedish in 1994)

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