It Was Just, Yesterday
by Mirja Unge
Translated by Kari Dickson

Comma Press
First Collection

"Iron 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

This 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 younger generation.

The 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.

Thematically, 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.

The 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.

In 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.

It's 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.

Norrgarden 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.

I 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 short story.

In 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.

Nevertheless, Unge is clearly a promising, talented writer, and this collection is well worth a read.

Kate Kerrow 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.
Kate's other Short Reviews: Daphne du Maurier "The Doll"

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Mirja Unge is one of Sweden’s most exciting young female writers. She received the Katapult Award for her critically acclaimed first novel, Out of Your Mouth the Words Come, and her novel Tide was shortlisted for the Swedish Radio Award. In 2006, she made her playwrighting debut with Where is Everyone?.