David Bowie, Morrisey, Roxy Music and other glam rock idols are more important to Joni than real life. Fair enough, young people go through these phases. The only problem is, Joni is almost 45, an impoverished single mother in a drab Stockholm suburb in the winter of 2004. She works at the butchery and deli counter in the Vivo supermarket, hardly the ideal job for a vegetarian and daydream believer. Mother to five-year-old Morrie, Joni is an amateur guitarist, singer-songwriter and occasional poet, who renamed herself after Joni Mitchell. She is the daughter of hippie parents who carted her round communes or deposited her on grandparents. Her mother is now happily reincarnated as a lesbian, and quite supportive in her own unorthodox way, whereas Joni’s father is a recovering drug addict she prefers to keep at arm’s length. Her own guilty secret: in the wardrobe, 1500 unsold copies of a CD she recorded, taking out a cripplingly expensive loan to finance the project.
The cost of bringing up a child and trying to indulge at least some of its peer-pressure-induced desires for fairy costumes, karaoke sets and ghastly Bratz dolls leaves nothing to spare for food and rent, let alone for furnishing the flat properly and acquiring all those scatter cushions and scented candles expected of “proper” grown-ups today. Sometimes Joni is reduced to taking Morrie busking on the underground or on street corners in the city to earn a bit of extra cash.
When Joni realized she was expecting Morrie - the accidental result of a one night stand with a Bowie lookalike - she sold all her old LPs and bought baby clothes, but her mind is still often on the same planet as her rock idols. Now, with that ominous birthday - half-ninety, as her father helpfully puts it - fast approaching, Joni has decided it is time to sort out her life and settle for realistic expectations at last. She throws out all her youthful outfits and buys second-hand clothes more appropriate to sedate middle age. She vows that her student-style birthday party with plastic cups and guests sitting on the floor will be the last of its kind. And there will be no more unsuitable boyfriends to destabilize the family unit. She starts a relationship with Niklas from work, who looks like Kevin Spacey and is bringing up a rebellious teenage daughter on his own. But Niklas not only fails to arouse any passion in Joni, he turns out to be a paragon of all the virtues she desperately feels she should develop in herself. His home is immaculate, his cooking delectable, his body well-toned, his outlook ultra-conventional. He is sure that the IKEA storage units he helps Joni choose will bring order to her chronic chaos. In fact, he just makes her feel inadequate, and she feels it must be her fault when he moves on.
Whether prompted by that landmark birthday, or by her creeping depression and low self-esteem, Joni has begun to be haunted by memories of her beloved best friend Magdalena, who committed suicide when they were both in their twenties. Then Joni’s grandmother dies, and she and her mother find themselves more upset than they expected, even though the old lady was churlish, mean and judgmental. Joni’s behaviour grows ever more wacky and unpredictable in a pathetic attempt to shut out the pain of reality.
What puts things in perspective in the end is Morrie’s fall from a tree at nursery school. Concussed, she is rushed to hospital, and although there is no long-term damage, a profoundly shaken Joni realizes what is really important. It’s time to abandon image-making and be herself, to love living, to welcome Bowie and Co. back into her life and acknowledge their role in keeping her sane. There may be a new love interest in the shape of the lynx-eyed photographer called Torbjörn, an occasional customer at the deli counter who has a habit of catching her at awkward moments, but that is incidental. Life with Morrie is what matters, and the insight that you simply can’t tell how things will turn out, but just have to go with the flow.
Subtitled “en vuxendomsbok” (a novel for kidults), Life on Mars is a poignant, funny book about how hard it can be to grow up. Joni is a self-confessed forty-something teenager, a Peter Pan figure, and in the end an unrepentant one. Inger Edelfeldt is, as ever, a keen observer of the ludicrous details of modern living, and presents Joni’s haphazard lifestyle and mothering strategies as a refreshing antidote to conventional consumerism. The first-person narrative, sprinkled with English phrases and album titles, full of irony, self-help schemes and ambitious to-do lists nicely reflects Joni’s quirky aspirations. The book is also a superb study of what it is to be a mother, that “cross between a cleaning lady and a Madonna”, prey to the full range of intense and conflicting moods, from delight through profound irritation and fatigue to a mortal fear that one’s child has been hurt. Swedish reviewers of both sexes have enthusiastically praised the female characterization, humour and social critique of the novel.
If I were publishing an English translation of this book, I would put Morrie on the front cover, wearing her fairy wings and shaking her collecting tin.
(Sarah Death, Swedish Book review)