In the afterword to Jagannath, her first English-language short story collection, Karin Tidbeck writes about learning both American and British English (along with her native Swedish) through various sources, from "The Beatles and the rituals of tea time" to "MTV and the movies, and . . . science fiction paperbacks" (p. 129). It's clear that Tidbeck, who translates her own work, has let this diversity of influence seep into her writing. Her prose is remarkably strong and uncluttered, resting not only in the space between genre and literary fiction, but at the interstices between further ill-defined generic subdivisions like science fiction, fantasy, steampunk, and the rapidly growing fungal bud of weird fiction. Jagannath proves that under all the pontificating and arguing about genres and their hierarchical worth, what ultimately defines literary value is good writing. Whether an example of good writing fits into predefined marketing slots or is a more slippery thing is a different conversation. There is no attempt on Tidbeck's part to cater to "markets"; this is a series of songs from the heart, mysterious and beautiful, sometimes impenetrable and dark as winter-cooled obsidian, sometimes light and effervescent as sunlit spring clouds.
One sees in the title story the lurid shadings of those science fiction paperbacks of Tidbeck's childhood, mingled with the intimate sadness of losing a mother (whether through the departures of adulthood or death) and growing up. It's a vivid evocation of the weirdly fantastic—evolved humans living as symbiotes in a giant biomechanical creature that conceives and protects them from the hazards of what one assumes is post-apocalyptic Earth—and the personal—protagonist Rak's moving coming-of-age as she discovers for herself that resident midwife Papa’s fatalistic comment "We only live if Mother lives" (p. 118) need not be true. In its intricately sensory yet metaphoric imagery of bodies in transition, birth, death, and decay, the story also illustrates Tidbeck's recurring concern with the cyclical nature of life and how it necessitates the paradoxical dualism of existence, be it in the coexistence of staggering beauty and great ugliness, love and violence, life and death.
It's telling that Tidbeck chose to title that story and the collection "Jagannath," which is the name of a Hindu deity, and the Sanskrit root for the English word "juggernaut." A juggernaut is, of course, something that crushes everything in its inexorable path. In this group of stories, that crushing, god-like entity might well be time, which both destroys and replenishes (gestation and maturation, aging and death), which spares nothing as it rolls over human creation but leaves everything in its wake touched by the smouldering glow of magic. The past is, after all, forever romanticized and narrativized by us, eternally slipping into the numinous realms of myth as the present solidifies into what is perceived as real. So it is in Tidbeck's stories, where nostalgia and recall hold an implacable power, and time itself is an awful force that both gives and takes with no regard for frail human considerations.
In "Aunts," we see the ritualized lives of a trinity of corpulent women in a "floating" world beyond time, the impossibility of their grotesque, self-sustaining cannibalistic life cycles interrupted and ruined by the stain of time left on their home by an unseen visitor. In the dream-like yet emotionally honest "Brita's Holiday Village," a writer spends a cool Swedish summer at a remote holiday retreat and witnesses what is possibly the brief life cycle (again time rearing its head) of an entire village that feeds off her presence, her imagination, and her familial past, to exist. The latter story shows how Tidbeck sometimes, to ominous effect, personifies magical beings as leaching off human life in desperation as they begin to fade in the face of cyclical time, just as we in turn cling to myth and old stories as everything around us changes. She also does this in "Pyret," a pseudo-nonfiction profile of a shapeshifting creature from Nordic folklore that starts out like a fascinating essay on an elusive animal and eventually takes on the disturbing atmosphere of a magical version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (recalling Tidbeck's comment about her various influences). "Beatrice," "Miss Nyberg and I," and "Cloudberry Jam" deal with the birth and growth of children, made fantastical within the contexts of steampunk and magic realism, grounded in the pride and pain of seeing offspring grow further and further from the parent. All are bittersweet pleasures, but "Cloudberry Jam" is especially touching in its exploration of the life of a single mother with an extraordinary, and difficult, child in the form of a vegetative homunculus she "made . . . in a tin can" (p. 83).
Sometimes Tidbeck skews closer to reality, with as much success. "Some Letters For Ove Lindström" is a lovely ode to a dead father and a vanished mother that wouldn't seem out place in Granta or The New Yorker, never explaining whether its narrator's hints that her mother might not have been human are the fantasia of nostalgia. It's a portrait, again, of what is gone, imparting memory and the mundane with incandescent power.
"Reindeer Mountain," the one original story written for the collection, gives the reader a haunting glimpse of the "vittra," a folkloric Scandinavian race that shares similarities with the Faerie. The fantasy is elegantly grounded in the family life of two young sisters, Sara and Cilla, who respond to the magical call of these beings differently. It's a story that sees the generational narrative of family as inherently enchanted, though not always positively—bloodlines picking up the strains of folklore and myth as they transmute along the years. Tidbeck returns here to the call of nostalgia and history, of passing time weighing down on the souls of humans and heightening their awareness of what has passed and what’s to come. Sara sees the magic that surrounds their family's soon-to-be-torn-down country house as portentous, while Cilla sees "what she had been pining for, that wonderful something waiting out there" (p. 80).
Some of the pieces stand apart as their own literary experiments, and are arguably the weakest of the crop, though not to the extent that they are less than good stories. For example, the sinister, Kafkaesque satire "Who is Arvid Pekon?" turns a government switchboard operator's dreary, depersonalizing job into a literal hell as he becomes aware that he's little more than a pawn for higher powers. It's a broader, less fascinating piece than the rest. "Rebecka" is reminiscent of Ted Chiang's "Hell Is the Absence of God" in its vision of a world where a paternalistic God has manifested and turns out to be more Big Brother than benevolent savior. "Herr Cederberg" is a light piece that is essentially an extended metaphor for transcending the pettiness of human cruelty.
Tidbeck is at her best when she delves into humanity's enduring fascination with loss, and how compelling that loss can be. Loss defines our lives, representing as it can a fearful ideal of the unattainable. What is gone or never existed takes on an unbearable grace. Tidbeck mentions that the Swedish even have a specific name for this existential ache that can never be fulfilled in the face of reality’s brutal demands and gentle sorrows—"svårmod," which she roughly translates to "hardship mood."
Tidbeck recognizes that much mythology and magical thinking arises from that ache in the human heart, reflecting both our fears and hopes for something beyond what we perceive with our senses. It's an ache that speculative fiction can directly indulge or ease, if temporarily, and she knows this all too well. Her stories tap into the universality of magic as an underlying presence in even a reality defined by rational paradigm, if only because rationalism is the counterweight to magical thinking and thus casts the latter in a bittersweet light of remembrance. And that light is present in the motif of twilight, which is ever-present in the stories, as it is in Tidbeck's native Sweden. "Augusta Prima" directly addresses this metaphorical throughline, giving us a thesis statement of sorts. In it Augusta, an immortal being who lives in the same realm as the grotesque women in "Aunts," accidentally slips into the human experience of time when she finds a stopwatch and finds out the "nature of the world[s]" from a visiting "djinneya":
There are two worlds and they overlap. The first is the land of Day, which belongs to the humans. The second is the land of Twilight, which belongs to the free folk. . . . Both lands must obey Time, but the Twilight is ruled by the Heart, whereas the Day is ruled by Thought. (p. 106)
In the fading, liminal glimmer of twilight Karin Tidbeck sees past, present, and future, and weaves stories out of all three, standing between magical and rational realities, Heart and Thought. She knows they stand closer together than we often expect. As the juggernaut of time barrels onward, we are constantly losing magic. But in Jagannath Tidbeck humbly suggests that magic is never truly lost, just waiting, always, to return.
Indrapramit Das is a writer and artist from Kolkata, India, currently living in Vancouver, Canada. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in magazines including Asimov's, Apex Magazine, and Redstone Science Fiction. He has written reviews for Slant Magazine, Vancouver Weekly, and Tangent Online. For more, visit his website, or follow him on Twitter (@IndrapramitDas).