Karolina Andersson, the protagonist of Therese Bohman's novel Eventide, is a successful woman: a tenured professor of art at Stockholm University, sought after by arts and cultural journals. She's also single; her 11-year relationship has just ended, and it is the need to adjust and come to terms with it that becomes the defining feature and struggle of the novel.
Contrary to the expectations a plot like this might generate, Karolina is in fact a strong, independent woman who is deeply perceptive about her self and situation. What is in essence a tale of loss and healing is prevented from collapsing into convention, thanks to the subtle touches of its thoughtful and talented author. While the women in the story are the ones struggling to deal with their respective losses, they are also the ones defining their lives, with autonomy and authority. Karolina ended her relationship when she realized how empty and superficial it really was. Sexual affairs are conducted on her terms, both before and after the breakup. She initiates adulterous relationships with married men; she enters and exits potentially sexualized environments on her own terms. When lines are crossed between professor and student, it is again on her terms.
The contradictions inherent in Karolina's strength and independence on the one hand, and on the other her remorseful sense of loss and of life wasted, form the heart of this book. Bohman is a powerful artist of human feelings, and presents a compelling portrait of the inner life of the woman at the heart of her novel. Eventide is in many ways an elaborate character sketch, placed in a believable academic setting and drawing on the world of art history to lend both allegorical imagery as well as an intriguing backdrop. How does a successful woman, who's abandoned the comfortable if numbing familiarity of more than a decade of domestic partnership, deal with being alone once more, in the eventide of her life? How does she reconstruct her life; set new goals; find a way of moving forward?
Nothing is easy or predictable in this novel. Relationships roar into being and then sputter; others bloom where least expected. Karolina pursues or rejects the men she wants; explores unlikely potentialities. She doesn't always get what she wants -- the men she really desires remain out of reach, but that's due to the assertions of other women; the men themselves are invariably portrayed as mildly weak-willed and pathetic, and realistically so. Karolina is driven on the one hand by a sense of desperation -- the need to prove that she's still desirable; the fear of others' judgements; the need for intimacy and the desire to not be alone -- yet she never surrenders her autonomy. Bohman deftly portrays the inner soul of such a woman in all the complexity and contradictions this requires: she drifts from exultant highs at her professional and sexual achievements, to the pits of despair and self-loathing, where she questions the value of everything she has achieved. One day she's deeply attracted to a man, reading his every move through rose-coloured filters and unable to prevent her thoughts from drifting into sexual fantasy; the next she comes to despise him and sees those same qualities as a reflection of his vacuity and lack of substance.
We need multi-dimensional, complex and real characters like this, particularly as women and as central characters in contemporary literary fiction. There's a real and compelling honesty to Bohman's character portrait, rendered even more compelling by the vivid and absorbing depiction of the story's Swedish backdrop. Karolina wanders through the neighbourhoods, squares and subways of Stockholm, all vividly and realistically illustrated; she drives into the rural countryside to visit her parents; she shops at the ICA, flirts in pubs, and takes in shows at art galleries. The colourfully presented backdrop serves a fitting complement to the inner turmoil raging within her.
The subtle feminism reflected in Karolina's struggle to retain her autonomy is echoed in the book's academic setting. The art she studies for a living is presented through a feminist lens, as is the sexism prevalent in the academic environment (both formal and informal) through which she moves. There's nothing didactic about this presentation -- indeed, Karolina self-identifies as a bit of an old-fashioned, second-generation feminist, averse to postmodern theory and firmly devoted to classicism and truth -- but it's refreshing to encounter a feminist novel that grapples so smoothly, honestly, and unapologetically with the contradictions and imperfections of both the inner heart and the outer world.
The plot dabbles with a cursory sort of academic mystery, but it's secondary to the real point of the book, which is the complex and rewarding portrayal of Karolina and her inner struggles. The resolution of the academic plotline is clever, even if it stretches credulity; fortunately it's not really what the book is about. There's also a recurring theme around the clash between organization and chaos, an allegory between contrasting styles of art and the regimented orderliness Karolina desires and seeks in a life which has, through her own doing, become chaotic and unpredictable.
But Bohman's true skill lies in the depiction of the Swedish settings she renders so vivid and familiar, and in the sketching of characters that become real, intimate and personal. Her previous novel was set in a hospital; this one is a set in a university; ultimately, however, her works are grounded deep in the souls of the women she portrays. For a novel which largely explores the feelings and experiences of a single woman, there's nothing stilted or laborious about it; the prose is light and engaging and draws the reader in with a desire to understand its central character and to see how she engages with the unpredictable turns of her life. Eventide is a lovely and compelling depiction of a very complex, very real woman, and despite its brevity and uniformity of purpose, it's a highly rewarding read.