10 must-read books from Sweden
Swedish fiction is among the world’s most translated. Here are 10 Swedish books – selected for you by Swedish Book Review.
(Make note: This is not a ranking, it’s an alphabetical list by author surname.)
1. They Will Drown in Their Mothers’ Tears, by Johannes Anyuru
(De kommer att drunkna i sina mödrars tårar)
Translated by Saskia Vogel (2019)
A Swedish writer is invited to a high-security psychiatric unit to interview a young former terrorist who claims to come from the future. She hands him a bundle of papers that tell her story – a jarring vision of an alternate Sweden in which populist nationalists have seized power. Johannes Anyuru’s searing, reality-bending novel is told from two viewpoints and times. It artfully combines speculative fiction with a nuanced exploration of harsh political realities, all written in a pulsating, rhythmic prose.
Awarded the August Prize for fiction – one of the most prestigious literary awards in Sweden – They Will Drown in their Mothers’ Tears cemented Anyuru’s position as one of the leading writers of his generation.
2. Anxious People, by Fredrik Backman
(Folk med ångest)
Translated by Neil Smith (2020)
From the multi-million-selling author of A Man Called Ove comes this witty, unpredictable story about a bank robbery gone wrong and the havoc that ensues. After trying to hold up a cashless bank, a would-be robber bursts into an open apartment viewing and politely takes everyone hostage. In true Backman form, the novel is packed full of exuberant, entertaining characters, from bitter IKEA addicts to ridiculous estate agents to an actor-slash-rabbit.
With poignant observations on life, love and loneliness woven throughout, Anxious People is an absorbing, compassionate black comedy that is sure to please fans of Backman’s previous work.
3. Welcome to America, by Linda Boström Knausgård
(Välkommen till Amerika)
Translated by Martin Aitken (2019)
Ellen, a young child in the throes of trauma, has stopped talking. Her brother has barricaded himself in his room, while their mother – a successful actress – carries on as normal. In Welcome to America, Linda Boström Knausgård paints a claustrophobic, autobiographically tinged portrait of a family on the verge of implosion. An intimate, stream-of-consciousness narrative plunges us into Ellen’s interior world as she tries to navigate complex feelings of grief, shame and conflict following her father’s death.
This is a slim novel with a dark, sparing narrative, but its loaded, precise prose and psychological intensity have found their way under many readers’ skin.
4. The Family Clause, by Jonas Hassen Khemiri
Translated by Alice Menzies (2020)
In the fifth novel by multi-award-winning Jonas Hassen Khemiri, a bad-tempered, arrogant father’s ten-day visit to Stockholm to see his adult children brings old tensions to breaking point. Told from the perspectives of multiple characters (including a ghost and a four-year-old child), personal crises, generational conflicts and painful memories build to a heady cocktail of familial resentment and frustration, as the son tries to break free of a pact he made with his father.
Come for Khemiri’s trademark style, wit and observational flair – stay for an engrossing, psychologically astute exploration of the messiness of family. A finalist for the 2020 National Book Awards.
5. The Silver Road, by Stina Jackson
Translated by Susan Beard (2019)
Set in the atmospheric north of Sweden, among remote wildernesses and dying mining towns, The Silver Road is a haunting, slow-burn suspense novel of atonement and endurance. It follows local teacher Lelle – who for years has spent sleepless summer nights searching for his missing daughter – and the rootless young woman Meja, as their lives are entwined by the disappearance of another local girl.
The novel’s gripping, character-driven narrative makes this a standout work of suspense. But this critics’ favourite is also an exploration of the ripples that trauma and loss leave behind.
...and here are 5 Swedish classics
- Kallocain (Kallocain), Karin Boye; translated by David McDuff (2019)
- Witches’ Rings (Häxringarna, The Women and the City quartet), Kerstin Ekman; translated by Linda Schenck (2021)
- Nils Holgersson’s Wonderful Journey through Sweden (Nils Holgerssons underbara resa genom Sverige), Selma Lagerlöf; translated by Peter Graves (2014)
- The Red Room (Röda rummet), August Strindberg; translated by Peter Graves (2009)
- The Serious Game (Den alvarsamma leken), Hjalmar Söderberg; translated by Eva Claeson (2001)
6. The Wolf and the Watchman, by Niklas Natt och Dag
Translated by Ebba Segerberg (2019)
If you prefer your suspense served up with a side of hard-boiled historical grit, then this is the book for you. Set in a grubby, seedy Stockholm of 1793, The Wolf and the Watchman kicks off with the discovery of a horrifyingly mutilated corpse in the filthy Fatburen Lake. Investigating the murder are the unlikely duo of a sickly lawyer and a drunkard ex-soldier, and their quest to find the killer will take them through a society reeling from war and corruption, from its reeking slums to the privileged upper class.
A grisly bestseller that stands out for its unflinching historical detail and literary verve.
7. To Cook a Bear, by Mikael Niemi
Translated by Deborah Bragan-Turner (2020/2021)
It is the summer of 1852 in a small village in Sweden’s far north. Jussi, a young Sami boy fleeing an abusive home, is taken in by kind and charismatic Revivalist preacher Lars Levi Læstadius. Jussi becomes Læstadius’ eager disciple. When a spate of murders strike the inward-looking community, Jussi assists the preacher in unmasking the true predator.
This rich and evocative novel is narrated with an endearing rawness and charm. It captures a small rural community on the cusp of modernity, mixing a compelling murder mystery with musings on philosophy, natural science and religion. A book to savour.
8. The Faculty of Dreams, by Sara Stridsberg
Translated by Deborah Bragan-Turner (2019)
The Faculty of Dreams blends documentary material and a vibrant, lyrical prose to reconstruct – and reinvent – the life of Valerie Solanas, radical feminist and writer of the infamous SCUM Manifesto. Zoning in on pivotal moments in Solanas’ life, this complex, non-linear novel abandons strict historical fidelity to instead enter into a dialogue with its subject.
At times harrowing, at times playful, at times experimental, what shines through is Stridsberg’s unsentimental and unflinching compassion for her enigmatic protagonist. The result is a bold and fascinating account of a life. The novel has won the Nordic Council Literature Prize and was longlisted for the International Booker Prize.
9. Inlands, by Elin Willows
Translated by Duncan J. Lewis (2020)
Elin Willows’ introspective debut is about a young woman from Stockholm who, post-breakup, finds herself living alone in her ex-boyfriend’s sleepy hometown near the Arctic Circle in northern Sweden. Initially overwhelmed by the region’s vast landscapes and stark change of pace, we follow her as she tries to get to grips with this new life, while her inner world quietly threatens to crumble.
Narrated in a poetic, stripped-back language and with a slow, rhythmic pace, Inlands is an almost meditative contemplation of freedom and loneliness, otherness and belonging.
10. The Polyglot Lovers, by Lina Wolff
(De polyglotta älskarna)
Translated by Saskia Vogel (2019)
A burned manuscript is the centrepiece in this sharp and laconic August Prize-winning novel of gender power plays, literary pretention and narcissism. Told in reverse order and in three distinct parts, this by turns surreal and absurd novel is set in Stockholm’s literary circles and a crumbling palazzo in Italy – from the manuscript’s inception to its fateful end.
Chronicling the sexual and artistic misadventures of its deeply flawed but memorable characters, The Polyglot Lovers is also a portrayal of a certain type of navel-gazing male genius and the women they leave in their wake. A pacey and unpindownable reading experience, served up with bite and swagger.