The award-winning Swedish novel April Witch is the dark and powerful tale of Desirée, a severely disabled woman abandoned at birth by her mother to spend her entire life in hospitals, and her three foster-sisters. The severity of Desirée’s disability is equaled, or perhaps even surpassed by her mental powers, which are so great that Desirée herself trembles to think of them. In addition to a deep mental acuity whose true extent the reader can only guess at, Desirée is an “April Witch”—she has the power to leave her body and inhabit the minds and bodies of other living things, giving her freedom from her physical limitations.
Desirée has found some freedom, too, in her deep friendship with Dr. Hubertsson, her primary care physician. Through their relationship, which is at the same time deeply intimate and stubbornly impersonal, the realities of Desirée’s disabilities, the limitations of her experience, and the deep longing they feed in her come into focus: “You can’t say things like that. Particularly not when your legs are forever locked in the fetal position while your arms and head are in a constant spastic motion, your face grimacing, and your hands fluttering like underwater flora. In which case you avoid words of love like the plague and pretend you don’t hear.”
As with so many aspects of her condition, Desirée is painfully honest about the toll a life almost entirely under the care and control of others has taken on her. “It’s as if every single hand leaves a hole in my body, and my self is slipping through these holes. Soon I will be nothing but a bag of skin surrounding a rattling pile of bones; the rest will have run out onto the linoleum floor of this public health facility and been mopped up by the cleaners.” Desirée sees her time is coming to an end, and she has a plan. She sets it in motion by sending anonymous letters to her three sisters, who know nothing of her existence. Fueled by envy and bitterness, Desirée begins a chain of events that causes the lives of the four women to collide and forces them to confront their painful histories in the novel’s powerful conclusion.
The irony of Desirée’s consuming bitterness about the life and love that she feels she has been denied in favor of her sisters (who were taken in by Desirée’s mother, Ella), becomes clear early in the novel as we see that their lives are far from enviable. All three were wards (or victims) of the post-war Swedish welfare state. Christina’s orderly bourgeois professional life belies her truly horrid youth, and the pain and feelings of inferiority that plague her. Margareta is a restless physicist working on her dissertation who tries to fill the emptiness in her life with a string of men. Birgitta, once the “Marilyn Monroe of Motala,” is now an embittered junky-whore with a talent for destructive behavior. Desirée’s first person narration as she watches her sisters blends seamlessly with that of an omniscient narrator. It can be difficult to determine where (and if) Desirée’s narration ends and the third-person narrator’s begins, but the result is that one begins to equate the narrator’s clairvoyance with Desirée’s own, giving the reader an uncanny sense of the scope of Desirée’s supernatural powers.
Axelsson has an eye for the subtleties of relationships, especially between women, and the kind of details that make a character—the word or gesture that speaks volumes. “She reaches out with one hand from the blanket in a floundering gesture, as if she wanted to reach through time and touch the empty girl wandering across the heather at Tanum,” writes Axelsson. “But at the same instant she realizes what that gesture implies about her perception of reality, and stops herself in mid-movement, changing the direction of her hand. It grasps her cigarette instead, and stubs it out.” It is clear from the moment we meet Desirée that she is a unique and fascinating character, but her sisters initially come across as fairly recognizable conventional characters. But seemingly superficial characteristics of the sisters take on deeper meaning, and become more and more revealing as the reader delves into their lives. This combined with a painful honesty only slightly softened by Axelsson’s fluid lyrical prose makes for a powerful narrative.
Birgitta’s words near the end of the novel seem to express the heart of April Witch : “Some emptiness can never be filled. No matter how hard you try.” Often using physics metaphors, an interest that both Desirée and Margareta share, Axelsson lays bare the pain, disappointment, and bitterness of Desirée and her sisters as they struggle to fill the emptiness and ease the pain caused by a sense of abandonment and loss that permeates their lives. As the novel progresses, the reader realizes how thoroughly the sisters are shaped, and haunted by their pasts. We have the benefit of observing both their inner and outer lives as narration shifts between the sisters, especially when they meet and we see them through each other’s critical eyes. Nothing is hidden from the reader, or from Desirée.
While I must assume that the original (as a rule) is superior to the translation, it’s difficult for me to imagine this story being any more powerful. The reward of this story is looking into the lives of these expertly drawn characters and watching as Desirée sets into motion a chain of events that changes all their lives. Desirée’s powers are fascinating, and it is a special pleasure for the reader to enjoy them vicariously by peeking along with her into the lives of her sisters. Desirée occasionally reflects on the nature of her supernatural powers and takes the reader along on a few of her journeys, but those with a taste for the occult should be aware that while Desirée’s powers give the story a dark supernatural twist, they are not the focus of the novel. Instead, Ella, Desirée, Birgitta, Margareta and Christina emerge as having far more in common than any of them ever realized.