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The Forest of Hours
Kerstin Ekman (translated by Anna Paterson)
Chatto & Windus, 488 pages

Ulla Montan
The Forest of Hours
Kerstin Ekman
Kerstin Ekman was born in 1933 and is one of Sweden's most prominent novelists. The author of the international bestseller Blackwater, which has been sold in 23 countries, she is renowned both for her detective novels and her more literary works. She has written 17 novels which have been translated into many languages and won numerous prizes and awards. She used to be one of the 18 members of the Swedish Academy of Arts and Letters, but resigned when the Academy failed to make an official statement of support for Salman Rushdie. Her novel Blackwater won the Swedish Crime Academy's Award for best crime novel, the August Prize, and the Nordic Council's Literary Prize. Kerstin Ekman lives in Valsjoebyn, a small village in the north of Sweden.

Bio/bibliography of Kerstin Ekman
Reader's Group Guide for Blackwater
Chatto & Windus, Random House

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Georges T. Dodds

The Forest of Hours is a wonderful Rabelaisian romp that combines elements of fairy tale, Norse saga and historical novel, 16th century ribald literature, mysticism, alchemy, and close interpersonal relationships reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman films -- a fantasy smorgasbord, if I may be pardoned the term. Given the realistic depiction of the often brutal rural life in Sweden over a roughly 500 year span this work is certainly a work of adult fantasy, not something that would appeal to or be particularly appropriate for the youngsters. Besides this, the erudite complexity of the novel and philosophical reflections of the characters on what it is to be human and alive would leave most younger readers behind.

The Forest of Hours is a story of the emotional, philosophical and physical evolution of a young troll, Skord. Some time around 1300 AD, he first appears in Skule Forest in northern Sweden, alone, in rags and completely innocent to the ways of the world. Beginning in innocence, evolving through his initial contact with human children; his initiation to language and sex through a lonely old priest; his study of humans as an outlaw/conman and as assistant to a clockmaker, a surgeon and an alchemist; his despair at what he perceives as his failure to become truly human and at finding a truly loving, rather than simply lust-driven, relationship with a woman; his final acceptance of himself upon his true love's death, and finally his acceptance of his own death and return to the forest that spawned him some 500 years before.

Baldesjor, an outlaw whose past haunts him to the extent that he feels he must kill Skord to whom he has confessed his great sin, Lady Ingilike a holy anorexic reminiscent of Catherine of Siena, La Guapa the old seeress who gives Skord his deck of Tarot cards, and the skinny slut Rick-Lena who becomes a bandit queen -- all these and many other characters in Ekman's world are richly diverse and complex.

Skord himself is a wonderfully complex individual whose behaviour ranges from good Samaritan to raper-pillager. His personal development appears to follow the natural course of human emotional development, but also to closely parallel the symbolism of the cards from his Tarot deck.

The other important character in Ekman's book is Nature, particularly the forest that is the beginning and end of so many of the characters. Like Robert W. Service did for the vast uninhabited expanses of the Yukon territory in The Spell of the Yukon (1907), Ekman captures what it is in the forest that is so eternal and so primal. After reading The Forest of Hours, I felt I had experienced the ancient Swedish forest, felt the desolation and bite of winter in a poorly built shack deep in the woods, the elation and bursting forth of life in the spring, the soft clinging warmth and humidity of a summer's night. Ekman, obviously loves the unspoiled Swedish forests located near where she lives, and she makes it clear that they are something that transcend humans' feeble attempts to delineate what they are:

"People have always tried to slash and burn their way into the forest. And when it proved resilient, when even the goats failed to tear the bark off the trees, they tried to control it by naming. They found everything malevolent in the forest: stinkweed and wormwood, devil's nettle, dead-men's bells and poison parsley. They named the plants which neither stank nor stung nor killed according to who fed on them: hawkweed, bear's foot, cowgrass, swine's snout and chickweed, hare's thistle, bee's nest and cuckoo's meat. For some, playfulness, for others, plain practicality.
    The rest became known as grass to most people, but there were also those who named the useless but lovely plants with such names as sweetfern and rose-bay willow herb, forget-me-not, sweet cicely, water nymph, angel's eye and herb of grace.
    But the forest just grew and flowered. It flowered with senseless frenzy, remote from the names. Some wanderers went all the way down into the deepest hollows under the stones and the darkness of marshland pools, and on to the steep silent braes of the lochs. They named the curious plants growing in these places, calling them bog onion and brittle bladder fern, ghost orchid and pinesap. Still the forest flowered on heedlessly, long after the namers had been silenced, roots twisting through their gaping mouths; it flowered, known and named only by those who hummed and clicked and twittered, by the rustle of wings and the rattle of claws and thud of antlers against tree trunks."
Beyond the quality of the writing and translation, The Forest of Hours is wonderfully different from the endless English language output of Tolkien-clones and role-playing game spinoffs. What makes much of foreign fantasy and science fiction interesting is how their different cultures draw on different mythical and sociological sources. For example, in the excellent historical novel Slave of the Huns [Lathatatlan Ember (1901)], Geza Gardonyi, a Hungarian author, portrays Attila the Hun as a great hero and as an intelligent and cultured leader of his people -- not quite the western European view of the man. Similarly, in Yevgeny Zamyatin's 1920s Russian dystopian SF classic We, the intellectual and physical tyranny of the totalitarian political system under which he is living is highlighted.

In comparison, American fantasy and SF are frequently based around the paradigms of rugged individualism (e.g. Conan), the wonders of democracy, everyone's chance to be a star, to own a gun and a fast car (and use them), and a pathological aversion to being open and honest about sex. European and in particular Scandinavian imaginative literature and film are far more about modest people getting along and having unglamorous, ordinary lives -- and, yes, that includes sexual relations of all sorts -- that are interrupted by events beyond their control. Coming from a country where the king walks to work every morning, greeting strangers on the street, and where saga literature is at least 1000 years old, one cannot expect "American fantasy."

This is not to say that there isn't plenty of action, nefarious robbers, great battles and the like, but, if you want some fantasy that goes beyond strictly entertaining you and says something about the human condition, The Forest of Hours is for you. Besides, if you are the least bit curious about alchemy, Tarot reading and northern European history, this will be an added incentive. However, don't expect this to be the kind of book you'll toss off in a night. You'll want to savour it much longer than that.

Copyright © 1999 Georges T. Dodds

Georges Dodds is a research scientist in vegetable crop physiology, who for close to 25 years has read and collected close to 2000 titles of predominantly pre-1950 science-fiction and fantasy, both in English and French. He writes columns on early imaginative literature for WARP, the newsletter/fanzine of the Montreal Science Fiction and Fantasy Association.

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