Sunday, 9 September 2018

Amatka, by Karin Tidbeck (Vintage) | review by Stephen Theaker

Amatka is a settlement which readers might assume is on an alien world, though it could perhaps be somewhere like a warmed-up version of Antarctica. Brilars’ Vanja Essre Two, information specialist with the Essre Hygiene Specialists, and Vanja for short, is sent there to research whether it is a suitable market for the export of cleaning products. She gets on with the work but neglects to utter the name of her suitcase, with the result that it dissolves, and from then she becomes more interested in a budding relationship with her host, Nina, and with what is going on in the world. Why does everything need to be named? What happened to the fifth colony? Questions like these are forbidden, but a friendship with a librarian (as is so often the case in our world too) proves a useful source of information.

One of the first Philip K. Dick novels I read was Time Out of Joint, where a chap in a picture perfect American town starts to notice that things are wrong, that things aren’t really there, just pieces of paper bearing the names of things. This excellent novel, originally published in Sweden in 2012, and translated by the author for this edition, is about a world where people must name things in order for them to exist. That makes for a riveting plot, a Kafkaesque mood, and a real mystery, and it also reflects how language works in our world too, how it divides reality up into manageable portions. For example think how the colour orange didn’t exist as a separate entity until the fruit gave it that name.

It’s also a book about romance, oppression, intellectual curiosity, the effect of separating children from their parents (all children here are brought up in dormitories), and it fits all that into an efficient two hundred pages. The best praise I can give the book is that it lives up to the author’s excellent short story collection, Jagannath. ****

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