In Johannes Anyuru’s novel They Will Drown in their Mothers’ Tears, an un-named young woman (the ‘Girl’), languishing in a Swedish institution for the criminally insane, tells an un-named writer (the ‘Writer’) who repeatedly interviews her that “it’s hard to organize the events in my head,” and later he too confesses confusion: “I went through my notes again and again dogged by the thought of having missed something important.”
Authors who create confused characters often confuse readers. Anyuru, though, being an author in full control of a powerful talent, can put readers in a state of mind similar to that of his confused characters while offering an engaging challenge.
Anyuru’s narrative is, to say the least, tangled. The story’s temporal dimension is convoluted, twisted and looped. And that’s not the half of it; the Girl claims to have been sent back in time from 15 years in the future and “[f]or some reason she hadn’t just gone back in time, but sideways, to our world, which was different from the one she’d left behind.” This is a character who ‘remembers the present’.
Although in the skilled hands of Anyuru readers can revel in being at-sea along with his confused characters, whose narratives are told by Anyuru in third person, a brief untangling of some major mileposts may be of help.
The Girl, a Belgian teenager who converted to Islam, is arrested by the State Security Service (a plot point that might appear insufficiently supported, as it is the catalyst for everything to come). She is transported to al-Mima, a desert ‘black site’ in Jordan (think Abu Ghraib), where she is subjected to neurological experiments involving wires to the head. Released in a catatonic state, she is hospitalized in Brussels, not knowing who she is or where she is from.
She escapes and finds herself in Gothenburg, Sweden, where she meets two young Swedes (one of whom is a radicalized Muslim who became an ISIS executioner in Syria, a scene with its own time-warp). The novel’s title is, according to Anyuru, a saying reflecting the effect on a mother of a child who is fighting in jihad.
In the end (and in the beginning), the Girl and the two Swedes pull off an attack, reminiscent of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, on a Swedish cartoonist during a bookstore presentation of cartoons satirizing Mohammed. The Girl’s task is to live-stream the attack (in which her two accomplices are killed but the cartoonist survives) on social media. Being from the near future, she finds herself existing simultaneously in two timelines and so she ‘remembers’ the attack even as it is occurring. Finally, the Girl is arrested after the attack and institutionalized in a Swedish psychiatric hospital known as Tundra, where she and the Writer regularly meet to discuss the tale she has written for him in installments.
Her tale of the mistreatment she and other members of suspect religions and groups have endured at the hands of Belgium authorities before the attack, and of Sweden authorities following the attack, arguably results from the black-site neurological experimentation she has endured. Diagnosed in Tundra as “suffering from severe undifferentiated schizophrenia with psychotic episodes and hallucinations”, she repeatedly sees a moth, large as her palm, that crosses her field of vision (see the book’s beautiful cover photo) and which is linked, she says, to a flaw in time.
Furthermore, locations that exist both in the Writer’s own experience and in the Girl’s narrative, while the same in name and place, are not the same. One such location is known in Gothenburg as the Rabbit Yard. In the Writer’s case, the Rabbit Yard is a public housing project in Gothenburg.
For the Girl, the Rabbit Yard (the same complex of buildings at the same location) is an internment camp where, in the aftermath of her terrorist attack, Swedish citizens who are considered Enemies of Sweden are incarcerated and, in some cases, tortured and killed. In her tale, the Girl is consigned to this Rabbit Yard.
At one level, Anyuru offers a tale that requires characters and readers — exposed to stories told by traumatized characters — to question the nature of truth and reality. From the reader’s point of view, it is at times unclear where the authorial assertion of a narrative puzzle-piece ends and a character’s memory, perhaps faulty, begins; nor is it always clear where a character stands vis-à-vis the truth. For example, the Writer allows, in the end, that “some of what [the Girl] wrote might have been true”, even though he goes on to deny the truth of her story’s principal elements.
Apart from the reader’s enjoyment of completing the plot puzzle, Anyuru’s novel explores a vicious cycle critical to us all; a government, anticipating threats from members of a particular segment of the population who have done no wrong, over-reacts in a way that causes such threats to blossom into actual attacks.
This novel blends topical societal issues with a speculative literary trope made fresh by being viewed through a powerful psychological lens. Anyuru, a poet as well as playwright and novelist, provides an engaging literary experience, a Möbius strip-like ride-in-time couched in finely-polished language.
They Will Drown in their Mothers’ Tears, published in Swedish in 2017, is published in English in 2019 by Two Lines Press in an excellent idiomatic translation by Saskia Vogel.