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Penwoman Redux

The enduring appeal of Elin Wägner’s suffragist classic

‘For the Hard Labour Gang, it was a summer like no other.’ This is a book about sisterhood and struggle that has won the hearts of many Swedish readers over the years. And that is why, when bulk orders from Norway and the US sent my translation of Penwoman out of stock, the team at Norvik Press pulled out all the stops to make a new, digitised edition and ensure this great novel remained available. Serendipitously, this also means we are able to bring you a sleek new cover design by Essi Viitanen, incorporating a photograph of the author taken around 1917. Wägner’s enigmatic but knowing look makes this a definite favourite of mine among images of her.

Originally published in 1910, Penwoman is the classic novel of the Swedish women’s suffrage movement. Its vividly and wittily portrayed gallery of diverse female campaigners comes together to form a collective that throws itself into tireless campaigning. They find male allies but also clash with irate conservative opponents (of both sexes) and risk both limb and reputation to advance their struggle for the vote. The protagonist is a young female journalist named Barbro, universally known as Penwoman. She is unconventional, feisty and fearless, but finds that the complications of love and friendship can take their emotional toll and be serious distractions from the task in hand.

As a pioneering female journalist over a century before the #metoo movement, Penwoman faces insults, innuendo and a very real threat of physical violence, be it at her boarding house, in her campaigning, or when going about her journalistic duties on the streets of the capital, sometimes after dark. Her experience and humanity drive her to be moved by the plight of women from every background, from the abused prostitute Klara to the lonely princess arriving with her family and retinue at the main railway station. Penwoman, sent to cover the royal visit and ‘be sure to note what she is wearing’, is deeply moved by a scribbled note tossed to her by the young woman:

Penwoman had been watching the Princess with mounting astonishment, and now gave her a direct stare, as if to ask if she had understood correctly, before picking up this unexpected message from a higher world.

“I wish I were a reporter.” Written in English. Ah, so that was what she was thinking!

The Princess was still standing there, even though the official welcomes had already begun; it was as if she were waiting desperately for an answer.

“She is like a rare, royal flower, condemned to wither young” – the phrase ran for a moment through Penwoman’s trained columnist’s brain – “her eyes looking out on the world, wide and uncertain, shifting between grey and violet like the blue fox fur round her neck…”

But she realised very well that the Princess needed comforting swiftly and unambiguously, before her archdukely aunt got hold of her, and with a quick, sad gesture containing the eloquence of a whole world, she reached out both her hands in their threadbare gloves, with a hole in every fingertip.

This multi-dimensional tale of pioneering female lives also has its moving and poetic moments. Here is one of my own favourites: in one of her confrontations with an alpha male politician whose cooperation is vital to the cause, Penwoman persuades him to make a bet. He will grant a concession if she can find a particular species of spring flowers blooming in the grounds of his home:

The Baron’s flowers, she thought suddenly, the wager! She turned off the path and began hunting among the clusters of overwintered leaves that protruded from the moss. Nor did it take long before she had found a whole clump of hepatica, which she carefully loosened with her penknife. Then she picked up the clump of flowers tenderly in both hands and turned to walk back.

    They looked like a group of little women, she thought, huddled together, bending into the wind in their downy grey clothing, modest but bold, with whole flocks of little beginners down at the hems of their skirts, and only one of them had as yet had the courage to turn her calm, blue gaze to the sky.

    Just like our own pioneers, she thought, and it was as if they only now came alive and could be taken to her heart, all those who had dared to make a start, when the frost was still biting, and the snowdrifts lay hard-packed in the forest. To her own surprise, tears came to her eyes; they were all dead, and they would never know how much we now understood, remembered and revered them.

The group dynamics of the suffrage campaigners are a central feature of this kaleidoscopic novel, and Penwoman’s youthful optimism is a perfect foil for the melancholy of her slightly older colleague Cecilia.  Cecilia’s own personal emotional tragedy lies at the heart of the unforgettable opening pages:

For a person who was once in love with a stationmaster, there are most certainly more pleasurable ways of spending the day than being carried across Sweden at a leisurely pace on a stopping train. In those days, when he was head station clerk and the only man in the world, all those stations through which a person now finds herself passing – Nässjö, Mjölby, Katrineholm – were as many imagined homes, where one knew the price of wood and meat and how to find a little cultured company. Since then, it is true, they have reverted to being sooty little halts of no significance, but a person still does not pass through them with indifference, for she has never loved anyone else. And all the while, as kilometre is added to kilometre, she is chaperoned by the certainty that, as inevitably as growing older, she is being drawn closer to that junction to which he was promoted, where there will be a twenty-minute stop for dinner, or whatever one chooses to call it. A person had at any rate decided a whole week ago not to leave the carriage this time, but did not think it would help much, for she had long since abandoned any expectations of herself. She might turn her back to the carriage window and take out her sandwiches, but one is destined to eat one’s own past sliced and cold, and when the train has stood there for twenty minutes she rises hurriedly to her feet, as if she has forgotten something vital, and hurries out onto the platform to wander up and down and with thumping heart steal a glance or two through the dirty panes of the booking office, until finally the man she would do anything to avoid emerges from a door marked “Entry Prohibited”.

Order your copy now from your favourite bookshop!

There is much more about the fascinating life and times of writer and campaigner Elin Wägner in a lively review of a probing new biography, in the spring 2021 issue of Swedish Book Review:

Sarah Death, translator of Penwoman

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Amalie Skram: feminist or not?

In many ways, the Norwegian writer Amalie Skram (1846–1905) was an archetypal feminist. Outspoken and daring as a child, she had set out as a teenager for a life of adventure as the wife of a ship’s captain, sailing round the world before she was twenty-five. She later published critical articles in the national papers, and was unafraid to clash swords with public figures such as Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson and Georg Brandes, leaders of the Modern Breakthrough movement. She divorced her first husband despite the fact that such an action was regarded as scandalous, and determined to make her living by her pen, which she duly did.

Amalie Skram

Amalie Skram’s second husband, the Dane Erik Skram, was as unusual a man as she was a woman; a journalist and writer himself, he thoroughly accepted her compulsion to write, and supported her career in any way he could, to the extent of caring for their little daughter while she wrote. Yet writing was for her a continual struggle, and making a living from it always precarious. At a time when most Nordic writers of any distinction were supported by government grants, Amalie Skram was refused a grant by Norway – because she was married to a Dane – and refused a grant by Denmark – because she was originally Norwegian. After her second marriage failed, she spent several years in illness and poverty, before dying at the age of 58.

It was during Amalie Skram’s years in Denmark that the European women’s movements began in earnest, and in 1888 the first meeting of the various Nordic societies for women’s emancipation was held in Copenhagen. The energetic chairman of the Danish society, Matilde Bajer, wrote to Amalie Skram to ask her to participate. Her answer was unequivocal: ‘I cannot be involved as a participant or committee member for the Women’s Congress. Although I have of course great sympathy for and interest in the cause of women’s emancipation, it is my immovable decision to refrain from all practical involvement. There are many ways of working for a cause, and the way I have attempted to do so takes up all my time, all my abilities and all my love.’ (Letter 7/2/1887)

So it is to her novels that Amalie Skram maintained we should look for her feminist commitment – and indeed it is in evidence there. Norvik Press has published three novels by Amalie Skram, all in translations by the indefatigable Katherine Hanson and Judith Messick: Lucie (1888), Fru Inés (1891)and Betrayed (1892). All are stories of women whose hopes of a life of love and fulfilment are dashed by the societies they live in; all are in some way betrayed. Lucie is a fun-loving former dancer, whose besotted lover marries her – but can then never forgive her for being unable to transform herself into a refined middle-class lady and lose her ‘over-familiar’ manners. Fru Inés is a Spanish Levantine living in Constantinople and married to a sadistic older man; she seeks love in an affair with a much younger lover, but finds only disillusion and disappointment. And Aurora in Betrayed is a lively young woman who, like her author, marries a sea captain and sets sail for a life of adventure, only to find that her sheltered upbringing has left her ill prepared for the realities of married life.


Here is an excerpt from the first chapter of Betrayed, where Aurora is talking to her mother on her wedding day:

‘A bride who loves her husband is entering into the greatest joy in life. And you have taken him of your own free will, and for love, haven’t you, Ory?’

‘Yes, but now I have to sleep in the same bed with him’— her voice changed to a broken, distressed whisper as she straightened up, walked quickly across the room and faced her mother, her hand clenched on the corner of a chest of drawers. ‘Granny Riber told me that she had brought her mother’s bridal bed down from the attic and that it was going to be my bridal bed too.’ She gasped and looked at her mother as if expecting her to collapse in horror.

‘You knew about this!’ Ory leaned forward. ‘Knew it and didn’t say a word about anything to me. Oh Mama, Mama, how could you do that!’ Ory threw herself down in a chair, writhing as if in pain. 

‘Why should I soil your imagination before it was necessary? Sit up, Ory, you are crushing your dress against the drawers.’

Ory obeyed and looked over at her mother with a pained, questioning expression.

‘You are behaving unnaturally, Ory. And besides, it’s only for one night.’

‘Then why couldn’t I stay home on this one night,’ Ory said despairingly as she prowled around the room, biting her handkerchief. ‘What was the point of all this fuss about staying at Granny Riber’s? To think you would refuse me this, Mama, after all my begging and pleading.’

‘Please, Ory, we could hardly let Riber stay at the hotel on his wedding night.  If only to keep people from talking we couldn’t do that.’ …

‘Well, why didn’t you tell me about this before, Mama? Then I could have saved myself in time.’

‘I really thought you and your girlfriends knew about these things. It was different when I was young, but now in 1869?’

‘I don’t know anything,’ Ory said, trembling with anxiety. ‘Mally told me once that you got babies by being alone with your husband at night, but I thought that sounded like nonsense.’

‘Just be sweet and obedient, Ory, and everything will be fine. It’s really not so bad, believe me.’

‘You said soil,’ Ory wept. ‘You didn’t want to soil my imagination, you said. Oh Mama, Mama, how could you—my own mother—treat me this way?’

‘I just want the best for you, my dearest daughter. Only the best for you. And so it’s my duty to tell you that from now on your husband has complete power and authority over you. You must yield to him and be as obedient as a lamb, otherwise he will be poorly served by his sweet little wife. And otherwise you set yourself against God’s commandments, which is the worst thing of all.’

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On the delight of dual-language editions

Students of languages will attest to the usefulness of dual-language editions, where the source text and the translation are presented on facing pages for ease of comparison – so we’re delighted to have published two such gems!

Dual-language editions enable the reader some insight into the decisions of the translator(s) – whether you’re learning a language, or engaging in literary criticism.

Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah’s facing-page translation of a new collection of Pentti Saarikoski’s poetry, A Window Left Open, is perfect for investigating the array of interpretations available. Take this snippet, for example:

no one has time
to think of the right metaphor.
The eyes of the stars
shut down,
the wind falls asleep in the cat basket.

…a plethora of possibilities!

Photo by Wil Stewart on Unsplash

But don’t take just our word for it: in the spirit of dual-language editions, here’s a second voice to add to ours – Jean Boase-Beier, Translations Editor, Arc Publications:

Part of the fascination of dual-language books is that a reader who does not speak the original language can see how words in the originals gradually become recognisable: bird; tree; shadow; poetry. It’s always the words used most often that become familiar, and so the themes of the poems emerge from the comparison of original and translation.

Boase-Beier has some kind words to say about A Window Left Open, too:

The poems are wonderfully detailed and beautifully structured. The translation is excellent: it captures the immediacy of the images and the shape of the poems […] This is definitely one I would have wanted to publish if it had been offered to us and I am very fussy!

You can purchase A Window Left Open at your preferred purveyor of poetry, or here. And if you’re buying one dual-language edition… why not buy two and make a pair? Our second dual-language edition is We Own the Forests by Hans Børli – the lumberjack poet!

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A new selection of poems by Pentti Saarikoski

Herewith I cease the writing of poetry.
   I’m not swearing to it, mind.
Could be a window’s left open again
               by chance and a bird
                                       strays in:
   what helps it out, is a poem.

Pentti Saarikoski was a prolific translator and journalist, and a revered modernist poet central to the Finnish literary scene of the 1960s and 1970s. The inventiveness, warmth and humour of Saarikoski’s voice have made him something of a national treasure in Finland. His writing is at once playful and political, drawing on everyday life and current affairs, as well as Greek antiquity.

A Window Left Open collects poems chosen and translated by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah which chart Saarikoski’s artistic development over the decades from his early Greek period to his politically charged participative poetry, and ultimately his last known poem. This dual-language edition places the original Finnish poems side-by-side with their English translation, inviting readers to explore the elegant craftsmanship of Saarikoski’s use of language.

Pentti Saarikoski (1937–83) was born in Impilahti (today part of Russia) and died in Joensuu. He translated Homer’s Odyssey into Finnish and published his first collection, Runoja (Poems), in 1958. He developed his distinctive participative style in later collections and became a cult figure, partly because of his self-stylization as a Bohemian artist.

Emily Jeremiah is a writer, academic, and translator. She has published two selections of translated poetry, by Eeva-Liisa Manner and Sirkka Turkka, with Waterloo Press. She is also the author of two novellas, Blue Moments (Valley Press, 2020) and An Approach to Black (Reflex Press, forthcoming 2021).

Fleur Jeremiah is a native speaker of Finnish with wide experience in translating from Finnish across genres. She has collaborated with her daughter Emily on translations of modern Finnish poetry and of five novels, one of which, Aki Ollikainen’s White Hunger (Peirene Press), was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2016.

A Window Left Open is available to buy here.

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Behind-the-scenes: cover design for The Year the River Froze Twice

The Year the River Froze Twice, translated from Inga Ābele’s Duna by Christopher Moseley, features a striking cover – a thoroughbred among the #horsesofinstagram herd, we think! Essi Viitanen, our cover designer, shares her creative process…

The cover needed to communicate the historical nature of the novel. Its original title in Latvian, Duna, can be translated as ‘thunder’, as in ‘the thundering of hooves’ – a nod to the significance of horses in the narrative. This is taken up in the cover of the original, published by Dienas Grāmata:

Here the equine theme of the novel is combined with its darkness, as the lowered gaze and muscles undulating beneath the horse’s flesh communicate strength as well as vulnerability.

However, the English-language title The Year the River Froze Twice – chosen in recognition of the Daugava river, which flows throughout the narrative – opened up alternative avenues for the visual style of the Norvik edition. Water, ice and river imagery was explored for inspiration:

The image search yielded a beautiful set of cool palettes and the intricate textures of winter. The practical challenge with many of the photographs was to find enough space in the images to incorporate text. One option was to go for a bold enough font that wouldn’t get lost in the photograph.

The initial idea was to build the six-word title into a graphic element and see if the ice theme could be incorporated to this, but these options proved too difficult to read.

Even with cleaner options with less texture, the vertical text hindered the legibility of the title. We also rather quickly decided that these covers were too general – they didn’t sufficiently reflect the book or capture its poetic delicacy and atmosphere of unease. So, after a design detour to frozen landscapes, we were back to horses! Keeping in mind the cover design of the Latvian-language original, we searched for captivating photographs of these beautiful beasts:

Two images were mocked up into covers, but the clear winner was the horse in profile. It had the regal air and corporeal force of the racing horses described in the book, while its stable-mates had the slightly dishevelled look of horses put out to pasture.

The final tweaks were to change cover fonts from Neue Kabel to Garamond to evoke the content, style and period of the novel, and adjust the colour of the typography to stand out better. And with that, the race was run and we were ready to bet on our cover’s odds in the wild of bookish social media.

Thank you, Essi! To read an extract of this novel, click here. To purchase a copy and support your local bookshop at the same time, click here.

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Interview with the translator: The Year the River Froze Twice

Following the publication of Inga Ābele’s Duna in English as The Year the River Froze Twice, we sat down (remotely!) with the translator, Christopher Moseley, to discuss his experiences of translating this work for a non-Latvian readership.

Norvik Press is known for promoting Scandinavian literature (although there are some notable exceptions, particularly some novels from Estonia, including your own translation of Pobeda 1946. What led to this project to translate a Latvian classic into English?

It’s the first Latvian novel I have translated, although I have worked on short stories before, including the Norvik anthology From Baltic Shores. I gained experience in Latvian during 19 years at BBC Monitoring, as a news translator. This particular project came about when I met the author at a summer school for translators at UEA. While working together on translating one of her short stories, we got to talking and I introduced her to one of the Directors of Norvik Press. At that time, Duna was Inga’s most recently published novel. I completed a sample, got hooked on it, and was lucky enough to get accepted to translate it for Norvik with support from Latvian Literature. These kinds of meetings at UEA and (pre-COVID) at Riga, are important for translators of Latvian fiction into English – there aren’t many of us!

Duna is included in Latvian Literature’s list of 10 Saddest Latvian Books. Did translating the novel take an emotional toll on you?

Yes, it did – it’s a pretty grim story. I consider myself hard-nosed, cynical, but it moved me to tears at times. It’s centred on a researcher interviewing a man, Andrievs, whose experience of life has taught him that horses are more trustworthy than people. He’s quite cynical himself, having suffered at the hands of the Soviet system – he’s a bit of a recluse, restrained, reserved, he doesn’t give easily of himself, but the researcher gradually gets him to open up. She really has to draw him out – he’s learned that talking too much gets him into trouble – and that’s what’s interesting about the novel, we learn the information alongside the researcher. Andrievs is emblematic of all those others who suffered. It’s a road trip novel too – the researcher takes him back to earlier scenes from his life, along the Daugava River – there’s a map included in the book – and most of these flashbacks are painful. Intriguingly, the researcher remains nameless – it’s very much Andriev’s story.

What challenges did you encounter in translating the novel from Latvian into English?

Big translation challenges! I was constantly asking the author for advice. Latgale – the province in eastern Latvia, bordering on Russia, that the story leads towards and where horses are famously bred – has its own dialect of Latvian: Latgalian. It’s close enough to Latvian to be understandable but tantalisingly different too, so difficult for the translator!

There were two further translation challenges: the terminology of communism, and the terminology of the trotting track. There are lots of communist terms that Latvians of a certain generation would be familiar with (the book is set around 1949, with flashbacks to the Second World War), but which need explaining for younger generations. And I’m not an expert on ‘the track’, so I had to learn fast! Involvement in the trotting track is Andriev’s main occupation and it’s also through this that he is tricked into a situation that is a crime in the eyes of the Communists. The Communists actually attempted to control the betting system on the track – even winning prizes had to be socialised via Moscow. Andrievs is a victim of this. It makes absolutely no sense, he’s arrested for something he doesn’t really understand, but this is part of the interest of the novel: it’s political.

How did you exercise creativity as a translator?

My role in the creative process is to try and capture the voice of the author as closely as I can – the creative part is trying to make the book sound as if it’s not translated, to capture the author’s voice. In this book, footnotes are used to contextualise its events for non-Latvians, which could have a distancing effect but in this case reflects Inga’s voice, how well-researched the book is, by highlighting the extensive knowledge Inga gathered. I’m sure that even native Latvians would learn a lot from this book [Duna was originally commissioned as part of the historic novel series We. Latvia. The 20th Century to celebrate the centenary of Latvian independence]. As just one example, after I’d finished the translation, the author sent me what had been a highly secret protocol that is now being released under the Latvian equivalent of the Official Secrets Act. This document reports on the events of 25 March 1949 – the year the river froze twice! – when there was a mass deportation to Siberia of Latvians who were considered a threat to the system. It’s from the Latvian KGB to Moscow, and it’s written in Latvian – not Russian, as one might have expected. I translated this too and it’s bloodcurdling to read. Inga’s mission is to reveal the truth to a new generation of Latvians before it’s forgotten or erased. I think that’s what’s most important about this book.

A lighter note to end on: what are some of your favourite Latvian words?

I’m so fond of Latvian, my favourite word is usually the last word I saw! But I particularly like the word for ‘history’: vēsture. The word for ‘wet’ is delightful and sounds like exactly how it should sound: slapjš. I teach Latvian and I enjoy telling my students the tongue-twister word for ‘railway’: dzelzceļš.

Many thanks to Christopher Moseley and to Latvian Literature for subsidising the translation. An extract from The Year the River Froze Twice can be read here, and copies can be ordered from

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Norvik Press launch English translation of Ābele’s Duna

Andrievs Radvilis is a former jockey on the Riga trotting track whose solitary retirement is interrupted when a young journalist comes to interview him about his career. Their meeting leads to a journey of reminiscence across Latvia, never straying far from the mighty Daugava river, which flows through the story as Radvilis recalls his early life. The weeks leading up to the fateful date of 25 March 1949, when Stalin launched his deportation campaign in Soviet Latvia, form the main historical backdrop of this novel. As an independent-minded man who would not engage with Stalinism nor compromise with the truth, Radvilis is imprisoned and blacklisted. Bitter experience of war, love and politics lead him to trust horses more than people.

Inga Ābele was born in Riga in 1972. She studied biology at the University of Latvia, and worked for three years as a trainer on a horse-breeding farm. Her work shows evidence of her rigorous scientific training, balanced with her deep understanding of human motives. Ābele’s prose works are the product of thorough research; she is fascinated by the little-known by-ways of Latvian history and its more unsung heroes.

This translation by Christopher Moseley was supported by Latvian Literature.

You can read an extract of the novel here, and if you’re champing at the bit for the complete novel, you can order it at or Hive (and support your local bookshop at the same time!).

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Back to university: ebooks and reading lists

Where has the summer gone?! With the reading-hammocks being folded away and back-to-school beckoning, this week we’re highlighting two resources: our new ebook catalogue, and recommendations for university reading lists.

Hot off the (digital) press, our 2020 Ebook Catalogue collects together all the Norvik titles that are currently available for you to download and enjoy instantly on your Kindle or other e-reader device:

Vigdis Hjorth’s PEN award-winning A House in Norway, translated by Charlotte Barslund – a perfect choice for #WITMonth

Ilmar Taska’s acclaimed Pobeda 1946: A Car Called Victory, translated by Christopher Moseley

Kirsten Thorup’s timely The God of Chance, translated by Janet Garton

Jógvan Isaksen’s Walpurgis Tide, translated by John Keithsson – a slice of Faroese eco-crime

We hope to digitise more of our backlist in future, too.For those returning to campus – in-person, or remotely – we recommend some autumnal poetry: Hans Børli’s We Own the Forest: And Other Poems presents a dual-language text with facing-page English translations rendered by Louis A. Muinzer. This work by the ‘lumberjack poet’ – a phrase I’ve never had occasion to write before! – is ideal for Norwegian classes. Students of Finnish may also be interested in our forthcoming selection of poems by Pentti Saarikoski, A Window Left Open, jointly translated by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah and also in a dual-language format.

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A summer of Lagerlöf – highlights

For those who couldn’t join the Anglo-Swedish Society’s literary salon celebrating the superb Selma last week, all the readings and discussion were recorded and are now available to enjoy here:

You can also read through our live-tweeting from the event on our Twitter feed here: (posts dated 4 August). If you are now looking to fill a Lagerlöf-shaped hole in your life, we would suggest Lord Arne’s Silver, translated by Sarah Death. This novella makes a lasting impression on its readers and is best read in company and full sunlight. An economical and haunting tale of robbery and retribution, it can be inhaled in a single, nerve-shredding sitting but remains in the mind for a long time afterwards. You can purchase this classic here.

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A summer of Lagerlöf – continued

We have some more pre-reading for you this week, ahead of the Anglo-Swedish Society’s Selma Lagerlöf – A Wonderful Adventure event and Women in Translation Month (#WITMonth).

Part of our Lagerlöf in English series and translated by Linda Schenck, Banished examines what happens to an individual rejected by society, and what happens to a society that realises – too late – that the living are more important than the dead, and that it is suffering a crisis of values and priorities. What does war do to us and to our outlook on the world?

Lagerlöf struggled with these issues throughout World War I and experienced a mental block in writing about them. Then she found an opening and produced a thought-provoking tale of love, death and survival that grapples with moral dilemmas as relevant today as they were a century ago.

An extract of Banished is available to read here, which covers some unexpected guests – thought-provoking preparatory reading if you are Zooming in to the Anglo-Swedish Society’s salon next week, and eerily resonant of these times of post-travel quarantine.

If this has made you curious to add the complete book to your summer reading tower, you can buy it here.