The One with the big C in Sweden

Johanna Thydell, I taket lyser stjärnorna (Swedish 2003); In the Ceiling the Stars Are Shining (French 2010)

I continue my investigation of the YA / Middle Grade shelves at the library, and I took this one home because I wanted to try another Scandinavian novel.

Yes, I readily acknowledge that this is very vague. And probably unsatisfactory to you. There was the nice cover art (I’m sort of partial, and I hate to be). There was the glowing blurbs and the fact that the book won a national prize for YA literature in Sweden. There was also the French publisher, Thierry Magnier, that regularly publishes very intriguing YA books.

Yet as I came home and started reading, I had to wonder how come I was spending hours of my limited free time reading about a Swedish 13-year-old middle-school girl whose mother was dying of breast cancer. This is no fun.

No fun to Jenna indeed, who is having all these very normal qualms about boys, BFFs, body changes, curfew, getting invited to parties, possible alcohol drinking, possible kissing and generally growing up and becoming a young woman. All that, while her mother is getting weaker and weaker and spending more and more time in hospitals. Jenna’s mother is a single parent, which means that Jenna’s grandparents come over and start taking care of her, which is all the more difficult for her to accept.

Despite the difficult subject (things don’t magically go better, this is no spoiler), Thydell has managed to hook me and I read the whole book in a few sittings. I bet teenagers will cry buckets over it. As an adult and a mother, it was also heartbreaking to read because of course I couldn’t help but identify with Jenna’s mother.

What is the magic formula that Scandinavian writers have to pull us readers in, although I have never set a foot in Sweden? Is it the relatability? The tell-it-like-it-is approach, the one that pulls no punches? The simplicity that makes it universal? (I’m not approaching the Ikea cliché, no I won’t). Is it the noticeable absence of prudish tiptoeing around issues like sex, death, religion and body? I’m sure there must be some characteristics of Swedish culture that are very specific, exotic and not understandable to me, but this book spoke to me and made me see life through Jenna’s eyes without filter nor distance. Which is a testament to the quality of the book, and made it totally worthwhile.

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