TagThe White City

The White City – Roma Tearne

This book was the January choice for the Ninja Book Club, which focuses on books from independent publishers. It was my first time reading Roma Tearne, and I was glad of the introduction. Sadly, the club’s online discussion had to be postponed, so I’ve put some thoughts on the book together here. 

Years after London began to freeze over, the ice is finally beginning to thaw. Our narrator, Hera, is prompted to recall the day that first day of snow, when her brother Aslam was arrested. Besides narrating the story of her family from then on, Hera tells how she fell in love with an older man named Raphael, private and standoffish though he could be. He’s left her now, but Hera still longs for Raphael; she even addresses him directly in her account, perhaps in the hope of finding him again. 

The White City is a novel of lives uprooted and families falling apart. Hera has never had the easiest of relationships with her Muslim parents, but Aslam’s arrest places  the family under even greater strain. They’re not allowed to see or speak to him, and are given only vague information as to why he has been arrested. Raphael has an analogous tale to tell of his life prior to the UK, which is revealed (to Hera and the reader) midway through the novel. 

Aslam and Raphael become displaced in their own ways – as indeed did Hera’s family when they moved countries, and as does Hera herself over time. There’s a certain nebulous quality to Tearne’s prose when she’s writing about Raphael’s old life or Aslam’s arrest, which heightens that sense of dislocation. The thawing London is itself full of vivid images, which round out a sensitive portrait of places and lives. 

Book details 

The White City (2017) by Roma Tearne, Aardvark Bureau, 256 pages, hardback (personal copy). 

The White City – Karolina Ramqvist: a snapshot review

I have to admit, one of the main reasons I wanted to read this book was because it won the Per Olov Enquist Literary Prize; and I loved the one book of Enquist’s that I’ve read, so naturally I’m going to like a novel that won a prize named after him, aren’t I? Well, whether that’s sound reasoning or not, it worked: I liked The White City (Karolina Ramqvist’s English-language debut, translated from the Swedish by Saskia Vogel) very much. 

Karin lives with her baby daughter Dream, in the mansion bought for her by her gangster husband John. But now John has ‘gone’ (the circumstances are not specified), and Karin’s life is crumbling around her, with the house due to be repossessed. Karin is desperate for a way out, even if that means heading further into John’s shadowy world.

The White City reads like a gangster thriller turned inside out: never mind the gangsters; this novel focuses on two people left behind. Karin’s viewpoint is disorienting at first, because she’s not so preoccupied with the background information that would be handy to us. Her world is in turmoil, and what she holds on to – what’s most vivid in her mind – is her daughter, and being a mother to Dream.

The strongest images at the start of the book are of weather and landscape – and body and movement. In this way, the ‘white city’ of the title is not just Stockholm; it can also be seen as Karin herself, coming to terms with motherhood. And there are still thrills there, ready and waiting for the right time. The White City is short and sharp – just as I like novels best.
Elsewhere 

  • Saskia Vogel writes for the Paris Review on translating The White City

Book details 

The White City (2015) by Karolina Ramqvist (2017), tr. Saskia Vogel (2017), Grove Press, 176 pages, paperback (review copy). 

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