Lelle, a middle-aged maths teacher left Lina, his seventeen-year-old daughter, at a bus stop in their remote hometown in Northern Sweden. At his insistence they had arrived there too early, because he didn’t want her to miss the bus which would be taking her to the first day of her summer job, planting spruce trees in a forest further north. However, it was not until several hours later that he and his wife Anette discovered that she hadn’t got on the bus, and that no one had seen her since her father had driven away. Intensive searches found no trace of her and, although Lelle, as the last person to see her alive, and Mikael, her boyfriend, were initially regarded as suspects, there was no evidence that either had been involved in her mysterious disappearance.
Three years later Lelle’s life is a mess: he is smoking and drinking too much, both his physical and his mental health have suffered, and his marriage has failed. Blaming him for not ensuring that their daughter got on the bus, Anette has left him and is now living with a new partner. The only thing which keeps him going is his determination not to give up on the hope that his daughter is still alive and to continue his search for her. Each summer, under the midnight sun, he drives along the Silver Road every night, minutely exploring every single turn-off and track, every occupied or deserted building, determined to succeed where the police have failed, and to find his daughter. On his lonely night-time drives he frequently feels that he is accompanied by her ghostlike presence and her reflections on how he is coping or, more accurately, not coping.
As the story starts, during this third summer, seventeen-year-old Meja and Silje, her mentally ill, hard-drinking mother, move to Lelle’s town to start a new life, moving in with a man Silje met on the internet. Meja, who has moved thirty times as a result of her mother’s chronic restlessness, wants nothing more than to experience a normal family life and make friends she can keep, but her desperate need puts her at risk. Inevitably the lives of Lelle and Meja cross and the disappearance of another girl of the same age, who bears a strong physical resemblance to Lina, has a profound impact on each of them.
Told from the alternating stories of Lelle and Meja the reader is immediately drawn into experiencing the painful journeys each of them is making as they try to gain some sort of control over their lives. There was such a sense of increasing tension as the story developed that there were times when I found it almost impossible to face what might be coming next. Lelle’s sadness and desperation at the loss of his daughter was evoked in such a heart-wrenching way that I found myself physically aching for him, as I did for Meja in her search for stability and normality. They were such well-drawn characters that there was never a moment when their stories didn’t feel convincing and I know that they will remain vividly in my memory for a very long time. However, it was not just these two main characters who were so well captured. Each of the others, from the supportive policeman Hassan, who was also Lelle’s friend, to Meja’s mother and her boyfriend and the strange, isolated family Meja becomes involved with, leapt from the pages in an utterly convincing way.
The author’s descriptions of this remote part of Northern Sweden, with the winding Silver Road weaving its way between endless forests and remote houses and buildings, sometimes occupied, sometimes abandoned, made me feel that I was travelling every mile with Lelle and Meja, that I was feeling the loneliness and isolation of the landscape, not only the often eerie and claustrophobic atmosphere, but also its ethereal and magical nature. Unfortunately, the evocative nature of the writing made it equally easy to feel the mosquitoes biting as they whined around in the air, ready to bite any exposed area of skin! The road, the surrounding landscape (and the mosquitoes!) certainly became major characters as the story progressed.
The fact that I had guessed the outcome of the story at quite an early stage did nothing to spoil the novel for me because the story is so beautifully written, with a haunting, lyrical prose which captured my imagination from the start. I know that this is a book which has garnered praise in Sweden for the quality of the writing, so I think it’s important to acknowledge Susan Beard’s superb translation of this remarkable debut novel, a story of love, loss, hope, obsession and redemption. Although at times desperately sad and melancholic, it is a story which also contains hope and I cannot recommend it too highly.
Linda Hepworth 5/4
The Silver Road by Stina Jackson
Corvus 9781786497307 hbk Mar 2019