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Red Flags Flying: Carolina Setterwall’s Let’s Hope For The Best
Stephanie Sy-Quia , August 11th, 2019 09:19

Carolina Setterwall's Let’s Hope for the Best offers a devastatingly forensic account of a relationship falling apart, finds Stephanie Sy-Quia

A bestseller in Setterwall’s native Sweden, Let’s Hope for the Best speaks to the increasing ‘Edouard Louis-ification’ of contemporary fiction, as a friend in publishing recently put it: an insistent, forensic, unflinching examination of past (true) events, often in a confessional mode. Except Setterwall’s book makes none of the recourses to theory that Louis does in The End of Eddy or History of Violence; and her book runs much longer, to almost 400 pages.

It tells the story, baldly, of an adult relationship. Carolina and Aksel meet at a music festival at the turn of thirty. Upon meeting him, Carolina (Carro for short) thinks “you’d make a really good cartoon, the kind that makes you happy to look at.” Tall and lanky, he has “the hottest jeans-legs I’ve ever seen” and works as a freelance IT technician. She works in concert production, and when she casually lets slip that she’s worked with AC/DC a couple of times, he doesn’t react. She plunges headlong into a passionate relationship with him immediately, anyway, falling for him hard, completely and utterly from the get-go. It takes him months to say he loves her, and, when he does, it’s at a bar within earshot of friends. “My first thought is that I hope our friends didn’t hear. It was so obvious you were saying it for the first time,” muses the narrator. “I wish it didn’t feel like an insult, but it does.” They never sleep at her place, because his flat “is where you like to be”. They spend more time with her friends than with his.

Things move fairly quickly. She persuades him to move in with her, then into an apartment she has bought, then getting a cat, then conceiving a child. He’s keen on the cat, less so on the kid. “After I pee on an ovulation stick and it shows I’m fertile, you have sex with me, guiltily and sometimes with eyes averted. I’ve stifled my impulse to thank you afterwards.” Conception is mechanical, and comes much sooner than expected. Aksel has little time to get excited about the prospect, and doesn’t. Then the baby, Ivan, is born, and with his colic and his night terrors, scuppers all Carolina’s visions of a happy family, and then: Aksel dies in his sleep.

To tell you this now is to give nothing away; Carolina gets up one morning, goes to wake him, and he’s dead. It happens on page 15. His death launches us into a time loop which moves at a different speed to the present, where the relationship leading up to his death alternates chapter by chapter with the immediate aftermath of the death. While the five-year relationship is chronicled in bursts, with gaps of months in between; the present goes by hour by hour, gradually accelerating to meet the speed of the past. It is addressed, in its entirety, to the deceased Aksel. It is a small, personal drama, but its progression makes for a gripping read. It reminded me of Mélanie Laurent’s brave directorial debut, The Adopted, about the bizarre kinship configurations which form in the aftermath of traumatic and premature loss.

The trials of single motherhood and bereavement are all presented here, and no one is spared. Setterwall sets about examining them with microscopic attention and a brutal honesty. She details the resentment she feels for her stepmother and sister, so unwaveringly supportive and yet so unhampered by a breastfeeding infant. She is honest that her relationship with Aksel was probably in its death throes (pardon the pun) before that fateful morning; and struggles to be honest with herself about this. Aren’t the dead supposed to remain forever beloved and never replaced? How can she reconcile this to finding a new, albeit short-lived, great love - and how will she tell Aksel’s parents, to whom she has remained close, and who are so caring for her newly fatherless baby?

There are moments of gallows humour – when a cheesecake vendor at a supermarket tells her to smile on the day of Aksel’s funeral; or Ivan’s classmates at nursery who engage in a discussion about death when Ivan keeps asking for “Papa to come pick me up today!”:

“One of Ivan’s friends jumped in. She knew a dog that died once. The teacher joined the group, and we all talked for a while about who can die. Flies and grandmothers and trees and a little sister who died in the stomach. [...] Ivan was part of a group of children who were now wondering if a bike could die, or a tractor. When we agreed that bicycles could break but not die because they’re not alive, Ivan was happy again. Ready to eat his banana, put on his coat, and head home with me”.

They head home and Carro makes dinner, “roughly the five hundredth time since you died, which we then eat while watching a green dragon character who till seems to function as a kind of Pavlovian signal for Ivan to put his spoon in his mouth.”

Setterwall masterfully blends the small red flags of a relationship with compelling excuses: reflecting on the fact that Aksel stays up late working rather than coming to bed with her, she asserts, semi-convincingly, “It doesn’t bother me that things are like this. We’re in a good place right now, and as long as I don’t put any more demands on you, everything seems to be working well for us. You hold me at night again. I squeeze your hand as I fall asleep and think how lucky I am to have you.” It’s a portrayal of a flawed dynamic and a game of wilful cognitive dissonance played by so many parties in their love lives. It is sometimes painful seeing it depicted with so much detail, and often cuts close to the bone, but its greatest strength is the deftness and compassion of its execution. Then post-natal distress, maternal exhaustion and bereavement over loss of said partner enter the fray, and pack a massive emotional punch.

Let’s Hope for the Best by Carolina Setterwall is published by Bloomsbury

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