What if your words caused something so incredibly awful to happen that you decided not to talk?

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This article was published 22/9/2019 (977 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

What if your words caused something so incredibly awful to happen that you decided not to talk?

And what if you’re an 11-year-old girl just stubborn enough to stop speaking for a very long time?

Silence is just what a determined and distressed Ellen opts for in Welcome to America, a dark, intriguing second novel from Sweden’s Linda Boström Knausgård, translated by Martin Aitken.

The book, originally published in 2016, received accolades in Sweden, including nominations for the August Prize for best Swedish fiction book of the year and the Svenska Dagbladet Literary Prize.

Knausgård’s first novel, The Helios Disaster (also celebrated in Sweden), dealt with some similar themes exploring language, childhood and trauma.

In Welcome to America, young Ellen’s strange silence fills the Stockholm flat she lives in with her actor mom and brother.

But Ellen’s also living with a deep dark secret, one that weighs heavily on her: "My dad’s dead. Did I mention that? It’s my fault. I prayed out loud to God for him to die and he did."

So the silence begins.

But being purposely speechless is not entirely bad after all, Ellen contemplates, because "I used to say things that weren’t true." She does find some truth in her quietness, but also a lot of darkness.

They used to have a lively home, the tone set by her optimistic mom, despite Ellen’s troubled dad. But now they all go about their own separate lives. Ellen notices that, "along with speech went the light."

Ellen’s thoughts fill the pages in a neurotic stream-of-consciousness style, with short choppy sentences and lots of questions. The novel speedily moves through her manic thoughts, lucid realizations and even frantic hallucinations.

There are no chapter breaks, and at a slight 124 pages, Welcome to America is a really short, engaging read.

But the slim novel is not without heft, covering serious issues such as abuse and living in fear. "Had I always been scared of my dad?" Ellen wonders, continuing, "Yes, always."

There are some frightening memories and stressful moments as she reflects upon her past. "Before, there was my dad to consider, the mood he might be in and what he could do."

The novel reads like a monologue of Ellen’s innermost thoughts; despite her speechlessness, it feels as though Ellen is engaging the audience in a conversation.

Like young Ellen, Knausgård grew up with a mom working in theatre. Ellen’s story has a play-like feel, told with a flair for the dramatic. Even the title, Welcome to America, is derived from a play in which Ellen’s mom performs as a fallen Statue of Liberty welcoming immigrants.

Knausgård also has a background as a poet and in radio documentaries — both influences are found in these pages.

At times, there’s oddness in the translation. For instance, Ellen remembers, "I watched my brother as he stood there singing in English." But when the story is in English — especially with minimal emphasis on the Stockholm setting — that feels strange.

Ellen’s insights also seem more nuanced than one would expect from an 11 year-old girl.

Those are small concerns, though. Knausgård tells a thought-provoking and difficult story in an interesting way — Ellen’s silence says a lot.

Welcome to America is a dark but compelling novel. It’s a quick read, but will stay with you for a while.

Michelle Peters works and actively volunteers in the arts in Manitoba.

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