It Was Just, Yesterday
by Mirja Unge
Translated by Kari Dickson
Maiden screamed and my head thumped against the arm of the sofa,
thump thump against the arm, and I said nothing, I did nothing."
Reviewed by Kate Kerrow
collection was critically acclaimed when it debuted in Sweden last
year, and it's true that Unge has an unusual and arresting style
that is worthy of recognition. At times, there is real beauty in her
writing which often showcases a deeply poetic style and thrusts you
into an atmosphere, a world, or a conflict with ease and immediacy. I
also celebrate the real and consistent focus on the female
perspective; these stories offer a captivating evocation of a young
woman's mind and the specific cultural pressures of today's
title story, It Was Just, Yesterday describes the events
leading to the teenage female protagonist's loss of virginity. The
story has a first person, well-paced, colloquial narrative which
employs no direct dialogue; all the characters speak through the
protagonist. As such, Unge plays effectively with the power of
perspective and creates a rounded, complex and intriguing character
for us to invest in.
it's also very interesting. There is a real sadness to the story.
We watch as the protagonist is cheated out of her virginity with a
sense of grief and powerlessness, which Unge evokes beautifully
through her use of dramatic monologue. We feel part of the secret
sadness our narrator holds. Her first sexual experience is with an
older male stranger; a stranger who gets her drunk to ensure
compliance. The exploration of sex as a confusing, violating and
loveless experience is treated with a sense of acceptance and
realism; a clever comment on the cultural tendency for young women to
accept negative sexual experiences as normative.
story is reflected through the protagonist telling Thea, her best
friend, about the experience. The obvious sexual desire she has for
Thea is displayed cleverly through her recalling an event when she
touched Thea's breast to help her check they were the "right"
size. However, the protagonist can't even tell Thea the truth about
her sexual encounter with the stranger, because she has to repress
her sexual curiosity about Thea. There is a beautiful sense of safety
in the relationship between the two girls, which they themselves
ironically seem to miss, leaving the reader to question the societal
boundaries that stop the two girls safely and innocently sexually
experimenting with one another, and not with strange men who control
their sexual behaviour rendering them passive.
The Attic, two university friends live together in an attic flat.
Their relationship slowly deteriorates due to the closeness of the
space, secretive behaviour and family pressures.
a very engaging read and probably my favourite in the collection.
Unge really shoots the reader into the claustrophobic attic space,
tracing the growing fondness between the young women, through to the
eventual demise of their friendship. It's well-paced,
well-structured and tense. The distant threat of the father figure is
cleverly drawn, the backdrop of suspense and mystery is left hovering
beautifully to keep you page-turning. However, the character and the
narrative voice are very like that of too many other stories in this
collection, including the title story. Once again, the protagonist, a
young woman, controls the perspective through a first person
narrative and reported dialogue. In addition, the end is slightly
unresolved and anti-climatic, leaving character motives unclear. Unge
goes for a realist, relatively mundane ending which denies this story
its necessary twist.
is the story of two academics staying at a farm populated by a
group of artists. The protagonist, again a young woman, very similar
to the lead of the other stories, drives the narrative which pivots
around her feeling threatened by Mikel, an artist staying at the
farm, who watches her in her bedroom one night. The story is
confusing in that we only get the one perspective, being denied
direct dialogue, and the true inner turmoil of the central character
isn't altogether clear. It feels like her relationship with her
repressed partner, and Mikel, is contributing to a greater concern,
but it is never fully clear what that concern is. The ambiguity is
strangely off-putting. Having said this, there are some beautiful
poetic images and Unge really throws you into the environment of the
story, the farm, the culture, the weather, and she does create a
sense of drama and tension, even if it isn't satisfyingly resolved.
really enjoyed The Roslag Bus. In my opinion, this story
showcases the best traits of Unge's writing. A taut, beautifully
structured short story in third person which is filled with poetic
style but uncomplicated language, evoking the power of momentary
thought. Thematically, this is a very interesting play on gender
dynamic, and an unusual way of looking at the culture of disbelief
which so often faces women who report sexual harassment; Unge plays
with the poisonous idea that this disbelief can take shape in one's
own mind, germinating self-doubt. A very compact and expertly told
essence, this short collection boasts a good deal of craft. However,
for all its merits, the collection is lacking diversity in character
development. It all too frequently feels like we are reading an
episodic novel about the same central protagonist in a number of
different situations. It's almost as though Unge can't escape her
protagonist; the character seems to control and shadow the majority
of the stories. I rather like the character - an intelligent, curious
teen/young woman, searching for understanding, for identity,
observing the world with a detailed and individual eye - but the fact
that this character, or at least the major traits of this character
command so many of the stories is almost confusing for the reader. It
is as though we are waiting for a grand reveal – that all along
this has been an episodic surrealist novella.
Unge is clearly a promising, talented writer, and this collection is
well worth a read.
trained in theatre, and has an MA in English. Her work has been
produced for The Edinburgh Festival, and she won a place on the 2010
Jerwood Scheme. She was shortlisted for the London Arts and Performance
Award 2010 and was accepted into the National Academy of Writing 2011.