Laura Lindstedt plays with genres from essay to poetry, transitioning from humour to rage – while asking her reader to contemplate the question of death’s inevitability and what follows it
Laura Lindstedt, Oneiron, Trans. by Owen Witesman, Oneworld, 2018.
Seven women meet in a white, undefined space seconds after their deaths. Time, as we understand it, has ceased to exist, and all bodily sensations seem to have disappeared.
None of the women can remember what happened to her, or how she got there. Performance artist Shlomith from New York, chief accountant Polina from Moscow, heart transplant patient Rosa Imaculada from Brazil, upper-class Nina from Marseilles who is expecting twins, Wlbgis from the Netherlands, who suffers from throat cancer, Senegalese Maimuna, who dreams of a career as a model, and Austrian teenager, Ulrike. They don’t know each other. They don’t know why they are there – or where they are. In turn they try to remember, to piece together the fragments of their lives, their identities, their lost loves, and to pinpoint the moment they left their former lives behind.
Lindstedt plays with genres from essay to poetry, transitioning from humour to rage – while asking her reader to contemplate the question of death’s inevitability and what follows it. As also in Lindstedt’s acclaimed debut novel Scissors, Oneiron addresses the challenges of communication on several levels.
‘I've never read anything like it. I was riveted to the pages as each of the women tries to work out her last memories and tells her individual story... If you sometimes long for a reading experience that takes you out of the usual realm of life and gets you thinking, this book is it. Recommended.'- Marjorie’s World of Books
'A prize-worthy, magnificent meditation on the afterlife with a suggestive warmth and forgiveness towards death in this frank portrait of seven women told with humour and a strong desire for storytelling.'- Dagens Nyheter (Sweden)
'Lindstedt uses the tools of literature to form a work of art with its own rules; one can only admire her execution and her ability to depict our world to a startling effect.'
'Oneiron is about death. It comes with interesting suggestions of how it is "on the other side," but actually sheds more light on the various power structures on our side.'- Dagsavisen (Norway)
'Oneiron is touching, with its direct language, and in its multi-faceted and concrete approach to what life can be. The way in which Lindstedt portrays the biographies of the women in words, enriches the theme of life, the body, and art in a grotesque but also refreshing way.'- Ingeborg Urke Myklebust, Mellom (Norway)
Oneiron begins with seventeen-year-old Ulrike finding herself in an unusual state and place, a white space. She joins six other women, in a sort of strange void, a blankness. They are, in fact, in an afterworld, because, as they've come to realize:
They were all dead as rocks. They could go without food and drink. They had no need for sleep (prviacy, yes, and then they closed their eyes)
They don't feel pain -- indeed, they quickly lose all physical sensation. If not truly disembodied, they now certainly seem to exist on an entirely different plane. It bears no resemblance to conventional concepts of heaven or hell; rather, it seems a sort of limbo, a waiting room -- though instead of each being left in her own bubble this particular septet has been thrown together.
Oneiron is a death-tale, and the women's deaths, and how they occurred -- hardly calm passages into the ever after -- are significant parts of the experience, which they share and reflect on -- even as they all find: "the final memories preceding the white space are not so simple to grasp".
They arrived one after another, rather than all at once. The first was Shlomith, a sixty-one year old Jewish performance artist, born as Sheila Ruth Berkowitz, who died after her triumphant last performance, as a withered-away anorexic. She was followed by hard-drinking accountant Polina; then heart-transplant patient Rosa Imaculada; Nina, who was pregnant with twins; throat-cancer patient Wlbgis; young Maimuna, taken hostage as she traveled through Africa; and finally Ulrike, smothered by a pillow.
Oneiron is presented in two parts. The first takes place entirely in the blank locale the women find themselves in -- one which they ultimately try to make more comfortable by using what little came with them --basically the clothes on their backs -- to create a sense of 'home', to more clearly delineate the space, making a sort of wall around it, while a wig serves, at least in appearance, as something like a fireplace. The women are able to communicate with one another, and share some of who they were and the paths to their deaths.
It is Polina -- a woman who lived in Russia and spent most of her time working, drinking, and reading, and who has a: "special gift, her monstrous photographic memory" -- who suggests the place they find themselves resembles Emanuel Swedenborg's conception: "He described the afterlife in a way that slightly resembles where we are now".
Fairly early on, one of them -- Rosa -- seems to progress a step further, becoming: "one with the substance surrounding them", and no longer an inter-acting part of this small community. But the others remain in this more life-like limbo, and continue to exchange information, and stories about themselves.
Only then in the second part of the novel is there a change in circumstance, as, chapter, by chapter, the women return to what amount to the scenes of their deaths and, in witnessing and becoming part of that, find release. All seven -- Rosa, too -- begin the journey together, all brought to the first scene together, but then, as each is swallowed up in the ever after after re-living, as it were, her death, there is one less at each successive stage. They do not leave in the same order they appeared, but their ends are presented in a more orderly fashion now, a chapter for each death, each concluding with a sort of external summing-up, a newspaper obituary or story, a death notice or the like -- with only Polina (previously already described as: "an entirely insufferable person") not getting the least sort of tribute, in an amusing little turn.
The question of why these seven women were brought together, and only seven, and only women, hovers over the whole story. When only two of them are left, Shlomith wonders put loud again, asking Polina: "Why us specifically ?" There's no clear answer. There are common elements, including that several die violent deaths, and that practically none have any man close in their lives, and there is even a small real-life connection between two of the women, but for the most part their lives and experiences were very different ones. The brutality of men against them is part of it, motherhood -- and specifically the connection between parents and children -- another, as several have difficult, and in various ways broken relationships with their children -- not to mention Rosa, where it is the difficult relationship between the heart donor and his father that plays such a significant role in her life and then death.
The novel dwells at greatest length on Shlomith, describing her life in considerable depth. She tried to turn her life into her art -- and ultimately it consumed her. Presenting the full text of her final performance -- a lecture on 'Judaism and Anorexia' -- Lindstedt is able to explore this particular phenomenon at considerable length, providing a full, rich biography for the character, from Sheila's teenage rebellion to her years on a kibbutz, and then the painful separation from her two children, and the resulting rise to stardom as a performance artist, culminating in a Vanity Fair cover story, 'Why Do We Drool Over Shlomith-Shkina ?'
The other characters are more sketchily presented, though with enough significant bits that the essence of most seems to be captured quite well (though Ulrike doesn't come across as much more than a rather unformed teen). Still, the imbalance in focus makes for a very lopsided whole, dominated by the Shlomith-story.
Oneiron is an interesting jumble of a novel, addressing many aspects of the female experience. Too much of it, however, feels like a flung-out potpourri of ideas -- right down to the afterlife-conception itself -- without adequate follow-through, except in the case of Shlomith. There's no shortage of poignant bits -- right down to the newspaper article that incidentally mentions Maimuna's death, without even noting her name -- but given the detail with which Shlomith's life and story are presented the others' stories feel rather lacking.
Ultimately, Oneiron feels like a novel and a half -- a fully conceived one, recounting and focused on Shlomith's life and experiences, and then a more ambitious underdeveloped one about the female experience in general. So too, the life-in-the-afterlife concept doesn't feel completely developed, with the novel's second part in part seeming like a literal walking-back of it.
Interesting enough for its many parts -- there are a lot of good and provocative stories and episodes here -- Oneiron is a bit of a mess of a whole, not nearly the sum of its parts. - M.A.Orthofer
Interview with Laura Lindstedt, author of the critically lauded Oneiron
Laura Lindstedt (b. 1976) burst onto the Finnish literary scene in 2007 with her debut novel Scissors, which earned her a nomination for the Finlandia Prize, the country's most prestigious literary honour. Lindstedt's second novel Oneiron has continued Lindstedt's critical success, earning her the 2015 Finlandia Prize. She lives in Helsinki.