The Memory of Love tells a story of extraordinary emotional depth and power. Marion, a retired surgeon, long divorced, lives on a remote beach in New Zealand. She looks back over the course of her life, trying to make sense of who she was, who she has become, and all the seemingly disparate story lines that have brought her to where she is. She wants urgently to feel whole again after years of tragedy, heartbreak, and numbness.
Into her solitary life comes an unusual boy, Ika, who Marion discovers lying facedown on the beach. Quiet, mysterious, musically gifted, and probably suffering from some degree of autism, Ika profoundly affects Marion. He visits her every Thursday, and for reasons she doesn’t clearly understand, she feels “an inexplicable sense of anticipation. As if the opening of doors and tearing away of layers was a positive thing” (p. 9). They begin to work together on a kind of natural art project in a cove, and Marion cooks for him and teaches him piano. As the time passes, a deep and unspoken affinity and affection develops between them.
One week, when Ika inexplicably doesn’t show up for their usual Thursday lunch, Marion senses something has happened. She searches desperately and finds him on the beach again, this time nearly drowned, with bruises all over his body. Suddenly, her involvement in Ika’s life becomes much more complicated. It’s clear that Ika’s home life is not safe and Marion must decide how to help him.
As the story unfolds, flashbacks from Marion’s past reveal a life filled with trauma, fear, and loneliness: the wrenching separation from her beloved grandfather when her mother-a beautiful, ambitious, emotionally distant actress-takes her to live in Stockholm; the violent deaths of her mother and stepfather; and another painful separation, this time from her baby brother, when she is forced to live with her uncle after her parents die. The events of her life have led Marion to shut down emotionally in order to survive. She wills herself to erase the past, to become a different person with a new name, Marion, instead of her given name of Marianne.
But the past has an uncanny way of showing up again, however hard Marion has tried to keep it at bay. Her relationship with Ika serves as an invitation both to reconnect with her painful history and to create a new kind of life, one that would integrate all that she’s been through and allow her to move forward with a sense of wholeness.
Lyrical, unflinchingly honest, and emotionally complex, The Memory of Love explores the limits of what the human heart can endure-and the grace that waits inside the most painful losses.
ABOUT LINDA OLSSON
Linda Olsson was born in Stockholm, Sweden. In 2003, she won the Sunday Star-Times (New Zealand) Short Story Competition. Olsson lived in Kenya, Singapore, Britain, and Japan before settling in Auckland, New Zealand. She now divides her time between Sweden and New Zealand. She is the author of two previous novels, Astrid & Veronika and Sonata for Miriam, both international bestsellers.
A CONVERSATION WITH LINDA OLSSON
What drew you to write this particular story? Is there much overlap between your own experience and the characters or situations described in the book?
For me, the writing always begins with a person, a character. Just like with meetings in real life, I don’t know much about my characters initially. In a sense, it feels like the characters take me by the hand and invite me to accompany them on the journey that becomes the novel. With The Memory of Love, Marianne/ Marion was more elusive than my previous characters have been. I saw her clearly, and I knew that her story contained the loss of a brother, but her place and time remained obscure for quite a while. I tried different settings, but only when it finally became clear to me that she belonged in New Zealand in a similar way to how I do myself, everything fell into place. But her story is not mine, and I have not had her experiences. It is often said that authors bring something of themselves to all their characters and I think that, in this case, my character’s emotions felt familiar. I found it easy, and perhaps even to a degree therapeutic, to write her story.
You dedicate the book to your mother, and mother-child relationships are central in the novel. Could you talk about your relationship with your mother and the importance of mothering in The Memory of Love?
I have dedicated this book to my mother, but not in her capacity as my mother. It was the image of the little girl that she once was, and her relationship with her brother, that filled my mind as I wrote. Although the stories are different, my mother’s traumatic childhood and her dependency on her brother inspired the creation of Marianne/Marion.
Many readers have pointed out that my books have no good mothers. The mothers in my novels are absent, dead, neglectful, or simply unable to nurture and love their children. I think there is a reason for the special place that the idea of maternal love holds-in real life, and symbolically in all cultures and all times. I do believe that it is essential in order for a child to grow into a caring, confident adult who is able to give love. It would be nice to think that motherly love flows instinctively when a child is born. Sadly, this is not so. A childhood without motherly love leaves the child without the sense of self-worth that is required in order to be able to love. In a sense such children will remain children all their lives. When Marianne/Marion meets the little boy Ika, I think they both find something in the other to fill the void that a lost mother has left behind. The little boy quietly seeks the woman’s company, and there is a scene in the book where Marianne/Marion asks herself who is rescuing whom, who has the greatest need of the other. For me, it’s a comforting thought that we are free to search for the people to guide and help us. The replacements for the mothers we never had. Looking back on my own life, I think I have done so.
You worked in finance before becoming a full-time writer. Did the shift to writing fiction feel like a radical change for you or the fulfillment of something that was waiting to come forth all along?
At the time, when the great shifts in my life have taken place, I have hardly noticed. It is only in hindsight that I have been able to see a kind of pattern. Even a plan, perhaps, though I am not sure it was entirely my own. I studied law and finance in a search for security, I think. And perhaps some kind of recognition. Proving to myself and to others that I could do it. I was the first member of my family to be given the opportunity to pursue a university degree, and it did feel like a gift as well as a responsibility. I think that with a different background I might have felt freer to pursue my genuine interests, and I would probably have ended up in art school. Instead, I graduated with a degree in law and finance. When my first novel was published in Sweden, a former colleague sent me a letter congratulating me, saying that he was not in the least surprised, as my writing had always been “very creative.” And my old teacher told me at the launch party that he had always thought I would be working with words. “I didn’t think you would be a novelist, but perhaps a journalist,” he said. And now, looking back, I think that my education gave me what I set out to gain: a sense of security. Not so much financial security, though I have been fortunate in this respect, too, but more a belief in myself. A level of self-worth that the women in my family have sadly gone without.
Marion feels like an outsider in the village. Is this a feeling that you’ve identified with in your life or that has played into your journey as a writer?
I did find it easy to relate to Marion’s sense of distance. She is an outsider in the community where she lives. She is also a very lonely person, which is not always the same thing. Like Marion, I have ended up living in a part of the world far removed from where I grew up. And like her, I have come to realize that however much I feel just like the locals, they don’t see me like one of them. Being an outsider, an immigrant, is not necessarily a negative thing. It can give you the opportunity to change your life, to be what you want to be. In the novel, Marion says, “They called me ‘the artist’. And they called me ‘the doctor’. Or just ‘her’ or ‘that foreign woman’. Making it clear that somehow I was not one of them. To them I had no name, just a designation.” I suspect that people I know in New Zealand would refer to me as “that Swedish woman,” which immediately puts me in a category of my own. But when I return to Sweden, where people refer to me in the same way they would any fellow Swede, I still often sense a distance, even in regard to my friends. So much of my life has no connection with Sweden. And with my family, it is not just a case of geographical separation, but also an educational and social distance. Thinking about my books, I realize that many of my characters are outsiders, by choice or by circumstances beyond their control. Like me, they are people who have a fluid relationship with place, and they seek their security in close relationships to human beings.
Why did you choose Adrienne Rich’s poem “From a Survivor” as an epigraph for The Memory of Love? Has she been an important writer for you?
Yes, I have loved and admired her poetry since I studied literature when I first came to New Zealand. The wonderful quality of the best poetry is its ability to relate to the reader in a very personal way, making you feel that the words have been written for you exclusively.
The Memory of Love is on some essential level about the loss of-and longing for-family. Could you talk about the differences between the families we are born with and the families we create as adults, like the one that Marion creates with Ika and George?
I recently read this quote by the Roman philosopher Seneca, “We are in the habit of saying that it was not in our power to choose the parents who were allotted to us, that they were given to us by chance. But we can choose whose children we would like to be.” I found it immensely comforting. In Swedish there is a term called “Dandelion Children.” They are children who have somehow managed to grow like little weeds, without nourishment or sunshine, pushing through minute cracks in the road surface or wherever they have found a glimpse of air and light. They are children who seem to own an irrepressible will to live. I think the loss of a “real” family, for whatever reason, will leave a child with a scar. But for those who have been rejected or abandoned such scars take longer to heal, or may never heal at all. All my life I have longed for a big family, and I consider my divorce the greatest sorrow of my adult life. However, when it happened, my children were adults and they have the benefit of all their family members on both sides.
Marion is driven to find a sense of wholeness and continuity with her past, the very painful experiences she’s lived through and tried to keep from being overwhelmed by. Why is it so important for us to make sense of our personal histories?
The ability to reconcile all aspects of our lives, to embrace our entire life history is required in order to make us whole human beings. In order to love and forgive others, we need to love and forgive ourselves. Everything begins with ourselves. It’s like the safety instructions that we get on airplanes: put on your own oxygen mask before attending to others. I do think that it is crippling to live with aspects of your life locked inside. This doesn’t mean that we need to discuss them openly. We just need to acknowledge them and accept them.
Is there a lively literary culture in New Zealand and Sweden? How do you feel about living in two different countries?
Frustrated! I am constantly struggling to catch up. Not just with the literature-which is very lively in both countries-but with all aspects of life. The last few years, it has felt as if I am trying to live twelve months in every six-month period as I move from one country to the other. Two of my three sons live in New Zealand, one in Sweden. After my divorce, when I was free to make my own decision about my living conditions, I thought I would move back to Europe, possibly back to Sweden. However, after almost three years I am still living this double life, and I have come to think that perhaps this is meant to be.
What other Swedish or New Zealand writers would you recommend to your readers?
Where to start?
New Zealand literature is largely unknown outside New Zealand. It is difficult to understand why this is so, as there is a wealth of wonderful New Zealand authors, and they all write in English. Apart from a handful of authors like Katherine Mansfield and Janet Frame, very few are known internationally. It might be due to the geographical isolation, and perhaps also a lack of cultural confidence. New Zealand is a young country and its literature has no iconic epic novel, but many authors excel in a smaller format. There are many wonderful poets and writers of short stories. Frank Sargeson, Owen Marshall, and Patricia Grace are some of my favorites. Another favorite is Maurice Gee and I hope that his novels will soon reach a larger audience. Among the younger writers I like Lloyd Jones and Paula Morris, to mention a few.
Apart from crime literature, not much Swedish literature reaches a wider international audience. Yet there are many fine authors. I return again and again to the classics: August Strindberg and Hjalmar Söderberg, for example. I never quite catch up with the newcomers, but I did read Tomas Bannerhed’s first novel Korparna (The Crows) which won the finest Swedish literary award, the August Prize, in 2011. It is a truly wonderful novel, very Swedish, set in the countryside in the southeast of the country, but also, like all good literature a brilliant illustration of fundamental existential issues.
What are you working on now?
I have started on a new novel. This time the time and the place are absolutely clear, but the direction is still a little unclear. I am taking small steps, and I walk slowly. This time, it will be a very Swedish novel, firmly set in the part of Stockholm where the Swedish part of me feels at home, but there is a reason for the many divergences that the plot will make, in place and in time. I am also working on another major project together with a much younger colleague. This is firmly set in New Zealand, but just like in my own novel, this plot has important international aspects. So, it looks like I will continue my double life for the foreseeable future.
- What is the particular appeal of reading this kind of emotionally rich and complex novel? Does witnessing Marion’s struggle to make sense of her life help you to make sense of your own?
- How is little Marianne affected by being taken from her grandfather to live with her mother and Hans in Stockholm? What coping strategies does she develop to manage her loneliness, fear, and confusion?
- What is the effect of the narrative moving back and forth between Marion’s past and present? What are some of the most surprising and traumatic moments in her personal history? Why would Olsson choose to reveal these moments gradually rather than all at once?
- Late in the novel, Marion tries to look at her relationship with Ika objectively and asks herself, “Had I used him? Was he simply a tool for me to give my soul peace? Redeem myself? Could I ever isolate my feelings for Ika from my past? See him as he was, see his true needs?” (p. 171). In what ways might Marion’s personal history have colored her relationship with Ika? Is she using him to fulfill her own needs or is she motivated more by compassion than selfishness?
- In what ways does her relationship with Ika change Marion? Why would a mostly silent, slightly autistic nine-year-old boy lead to such major transformations in her? In what ways does he serve as a doorway into her buried past?
- What is the significance of Marion first finding Ika lying on the beach? Does it remind her of earlier events in her life?
- Marion, Ika, and George have all suffered major losses. Marion has lost her parents, her brother, and her grandfather, as well as her husband through divorce. Ika’s mother died soon after giving birth to him, and he never knew his father. George has lost his wife. “My home died with my wife,” he says (p. 156). In what ways might these losses have prepared them to create a new family, and a new home, with each other? Is there any way these terribly painful experiences can be seen as gifts?
- Why does Marion feel compelled to make sense of her life, her history? Why is it so important to put the events of her life in some kind of order, to see it “as a whole”? (p. 9). How does she find that wholeness and accept her past by the end of the book?
- Why does Olsson end the novel with George taking Marion and Ika on a helicopter flight over the project Marion and Ika have been working on? What is the significance of this heightened perspective and of Marion and Ika being able to see their project in its entirety rather than just its individual parts?