Lately, novels from Sweden have sunk into deep noir. “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is far from the only sketchy character on those mean Scandinavian streets. But the English debut from Johannes Anyuru, “They Will Drown in Their Mothers’ Tears,” offers more, a double helping of nasty business. Following an Islamic State-style attack in a Gothenburg bookstore, a nightmare for the West, the story conjures up another kind of worst-case scenario. White supremacists come to power and start to round up local Muslims, in a 21st-century genocide. Overall, the novel sets up a classic conceit, hate for hate, and both extremes erupt with bruising force.
The novel opens with the Islamist militants, three teenagers, incensed by a cartoonist’s depictions of Muhammed. When they bring their Kalashnikovs and phone-cams to the cartoonist’s book launch, it evokes the 2015 massacre at Charlie Hebdo. But the scene’s point of view is a terrorist’s, the girl of the trio, a teenager plainly in over her head. She keeps things raw and fresh: “The body is on its back, arms and legs flung out, breathing fitfully through its mouth, face swollen, bluish. She thinks she sees a moth, large as her palm, crawling over Hamad’s face.”
Then just as all hell is about to break loose, the author lowers the heat. Leaving a key detail or two mysterious, Anyuru flashes forward. He takes us to a facility for the criminally insane, two years later. There a writer sits down with the lone surviving terrorist — the girl. The prison visitor is never named, and his young subject remains an enigma, unhinged by PTSD. Known as Annika to her Belgian parents and Nour to her fellow warriors, she is writing what she claims is a report from the future. Plainly she is suffering delusions, yet her manuscript proves compelling, its story all too plausible. She has seen the country swing to fascism, its laws against outsiders ever more draconian. Soon enough, all “enemies of Sweden” are packed off to a concentration camp known as “the Rabbit Yard.” Horrors flare as vividly as during the opening assault: “In their riot gear the guards looked like large insects working in the fiery thunder of spinning emergency lights, spraying tear gas.”
This potent structure, a therapeutic bridge between two infernos, feels like the work of a novelist hitting his stride. Anyuru turned 40 this year, and though he has published earlier fiction and poetry, as well as working in theater and radio, this book has been a breakthrough. It has won a major Swedish award, and there’s a movie in the works. If there’s any justice, some of this success will cross the Atlantic. It’s a rare author who has such sensitivity with explosive materials.
After all, he’s got skin in this game: Anyuru is the son of a Ugandan and Muslim father and a Swedish mother. Research quickly establishes that he shares the uneasy assimilation of his novel’s unnamed writer (also a poet). That character does some good, helping Nour reconnect with Annika at least a bit. He grasps how the fright show in her head is a response to trauma, including her vicious interrogation, utterly unwarranted, at an anti-terrorist “black site.” Yet the writer, himself Muslim, may soon quit the country, taking his wife and child to Canada. He’s “scared” that his loved ones may not be able “to live their lives here.”
The connection between the girl’s bad dream and the writer’s actual experience feels belabored at times, and it isn’t the only misstep. The role of Annika’s parents in an unexpected tragedy — following their daughter’s conversion to Islam in a fit of teenage pique — goes conspicuously undeveloped. By and large, though, Saskia Vogel’s translation achieves a difficult balance, nimble yet compassionate. She captures Annika’s mash-up of Western slang and Koranic Arabic, its humor often a relief, and also the more complex contemplations of the writer, poetic and touching when he considers his daughter: “I didn’t know what she was praying for there in my lap, because I imagined she was already in paradise.”
Language emerges as one of the novel’s core subjects. Other vast issues are at stake, to be sure, such as the irrational hatred of the other and the timeless quest for a homeland. Anyuru doesn’t resist having a character or two mouth a slogan: “We have to fight, brother. We have to tell the Swedes our stories.” Yet even this call to arms prefers the weapon of story. Narrative is everywhere in “They Will Drown in Their Mothers’ Tears.” At worst, it takes perverted form, such as the video of a beheading, but it also dramatizes small increments of progress, personal and social. I came away thinking of the book as an attempt to forge a more humane means of expression, one that could surmount all our fears and failures: “If I’d been a real poet,” the writer notes, “I would’ve been able to write a poem and hold out each word one at a time, showing how broken they were.”