Thursday 6 June 2024

Toxic by Helga Flatland BLOG TOUR #Toxic @HelgaFlatland @OrendaBooks T. Matt Bagguley #BookReview


When Mathilde is forced to leave her teaching job in Oslo after her relationship with eighteen-year-old Jacob is exposed, she flees to the countryside for a more authentic life.

 Her new home is a quiet cottage on the outskirts of a dairy farm run by Andres and Johs, whose hobbies include playing the fiddle and telling folktales – many of them about female rebellion and disobedience, and seeking justice, whatever it takes.

 But beneath the apparently friendly and peaceful pastoral surface of life on the farm, something darker and more sinister starts to vibrate and, with Mathilde’s arrival, cracks start appearing … everywhere.

Toxic by Helga Flatland was published by Orenda Books on 23 May 2024 and is translated from Norwegian by Matt Bagguley. My thanks to the publisher who sent my copy for review as part of this Blog Tour 

Toxic was one of my most anticipated books of the year. I am totally in awe of this author's masterful, beautiful writing. I read and reviewed her two earlier Orenda books; A Modern Family (2019), and then One Last Time (2021). It has felt like a very very long wait, but it was worth it!  Once more, this extraordinarily talented author has produced  a novel that has kept me enraptured throughout, it is perfectly translated into English by Matt Bagguley. 

The novel begins with two seemingly unrelated characters narrating their stories. A clever use of a slightly different font clearly marks out the two separate narratives. We are introduced to Johs, a man who helps to run the family farm in the countryside of Telemark. The farm has been in the family for generation and currently Johs lives alone in one house, his parents in another and his married brother and his family in the other. Lying empty is the old cottage that was occupied by Johs' grandfather Johannes, before he died. Johannes not only left the farm to his family, his other legacy was his talent for playing the fiddle. A pastime that Johs has continued, taking part in concerts and competitions, but appearing uneasy about doing so.

Meanwhile, in the city of Oslo, Mathilde is a teacher. She lives alone, her parents were killed in an accident many years ago, when she was just a very small child. She was raised by her mother's sister, who she calls Mum. Mathilde is a complex, flawed character. Her parents were very successful, her mother was an acclaimed novelist, but Mathilde appears to lead an unstructured life.  She makes rash decisions, but rarely believes that she is responsible for them, despite being an adult. She's obsessive at times, saying and doing things that can only lead to trouble.

When the headteacher at her school discovers that she's been in a relationship with Jakob, a pupil. Mathilde once again refuses to acknowledge her blame and it is this incident that introduces the two parts of the story.

Fleeing Oslo, Mathilde rents Johannes' old cottage from Johs' family. She moves out of the city that she loves and begins a fresh start in the countryside. 

Mathilde has not learned anything from her experience. Once more, even though she's a visitor to the area she does and says exactly what she wants to. Not considering the consequences, nor the hurt that she may cause. 

Flatland's ability to get into the heart of her characters, and their families is outstanding. She has created a novel that looks past the exterior, and the current events and weaves family history into the story. The reader can understand why Johs acts as he does, the lasting legacy of his grandfather looms darkly over him at all times. The coldness of his mother and the fragility of his brother become too much to bear at times, he's a man who is looking for peace and tranquility. He thinks that he may have found it, only for his world to explode around him. 

Mathilde's issues also stem from her parents.  A couple who have always appeared to be perfect, and tragic. However, when she learns more intimate details about them, later in the novel, the reader can understand, if not agree with, some of her actions. 

This is an exquisite novel, perfectly formed. It's not a long novel at less than 300 pages, but it is one to savour, to think about and to enjoy. Flatland is one of Norway's most awarded and acclaimed novelist and it is very easy to see why. Her characters are sublime, her setting is evocative and the plot is complex and clever with an ending that will shock. Highly recommended. 

Helga Flatland is one of Norway’s most awarded and widely read authors. 

Born in Telemark,
Norway, in 1984, she made her literary debut in 2010 with the novel Stay If You Can, Leave If You Must, for which she was awarded the Tarjei Vesaas’ First Book Prize. 

She has written six novels and a children’s book and has won several other literary awards. 

Her fifth novel, A Modern Family (her first English translation), was published to wide acclaim in Norway in August 2017 and was a number-one bestseller. The rights have subsequently been sold across Europe and the novel has sold more than 100,000 copies. 

One Last Time was published in 2020 and also topped bestseller lists in Norway. 

Helga lives in Oslo.

X @HelgaFlatland

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