Peter Sandström’s novel Den stora blondinens sista sommar (“The big blonde’s last summer”, not published in English) opens with the narrator, a middle-aged writer, walking around the house where he grew up. It must be emptied. Things go relatively smoothly at first, but the smaller and more trivial the objects he confronts, the greater become his doubts. At the sight of the last remnants of inspired maternal cooking – “A mustard tub, a tub of soured yoghurt, ketchup, honey, all old and past it” – he decides “the orderliness there once was in the kitchen must live on if I’m to get through this in the long run. It was like a chessboard in a game where there was no rush, where the pieces stood still for days, weeks or months on end between one move and the next.”
These are mundane undertakings many of us have to deal with at some point, and often there’s an element of magical thinking wrapped up in the practical. At such moments, death and madness linger discreetly at the edges of life and reason. That it is in the kitchen that Sandström’s protagonist experiences powerlessness and doubt will not surprise those familiar with his earlier work. The mum is a powerful figure in his fictional universe and often depicted with warmth and humour. Although the mother has a role in Den stora blondinens sista sommar, this time other women are more important. Or, rather, the narrator’s position in relation to them.
While Sandström’s main character is emptying the house, his daughter is preparing to move away from him. But how can I be a father in Turku to a grown woman studying in Utrecht?
This sets the tectonic plates of the soul in motion, no matter how cautiously he approaches things.
The surface of his current world is starting to fracture, and a summer from the 1980s is leaking from a fissure. The main character was young then and in love with the fleeting Limone, and he had a brief but fantastic dream of fatherhood that never became real. A loss easier to forget than to put into words, but an impression of it remained and now it was becoming visible.
He remembers the lonely summer following his relationship with Limone, when she left and gave him the key to her apartment so that he could water her flowers. He remembers how he snooped in her things, flicking through her diary, where he was never even mentioned, and where the abortion was acknowledged with the misspelt “termanation”. He remembers getting an answering machine that he would call from her phone or from a telephone kiosk in town, so that for a brief moment, when the answering machine flashed red, full of promise, he could imagine that it was Limone calling when he returned to his own home. And he remembers Virtanen, the colleague who taught him the art of window washing at the cleaning company where he got a summer job, who bandaged the wound on his hand, and who showed him the photos of his beloved steam machines.
Den stora blondinens sista sommar is a poignant and heartbreaking portrayal of such timeless human themes as love, parenthood and ageing, in prose that is both concrete and intense in its emotion and thought.
Born in 1963, Peter Sandström made his debut in 1998 with the short story collection Plebejerna, which was followed by two more short story collections and six novels. He has won several awards, including the Runeberg Prize and the Samfundet De Nios Christmas Prize in 2017 for the novel Laudatur, the Signe Ekblad-Eldh Prize from the Swedish Academy in 2021, and, in the same year, the Stiftelsen Längmanska Cultural Fund Prize for the novel Kärleken är ett tamdjur.