The Ravens by Tomas Bannerhed (Or, How I Stand Apart From The Shadow Jury on This One)

The Ravens

The Ravens fly over the farmer’s house, shrieking, predicting death.

The cover for this book is particularly well done. It shows the raven trying to soar upward, but appearing as if it will ultimately fall into some dreadful descent. Its tail becomes a smear, ineffective, and marring the picture of beauty. Marring the picture of freedom, as it seems this bird will be forever tethered to the ground instead of the heavens where it belongs.

I had a difficult time with The Ravens. It took me all of April to read 132 pages. I struggled every night to get at least five read, but they were ponderous…almost too heavy to turn. I vowed I would complete it yesterday, during the 24 Hour Read-a-thon, and so I read for several hours without relinquishing my goal until it was done. The reading didn’t get any easier for me. It became harder as I went.

The story takes place in Sweden, in the 1970’s. A boy named Klas lives with his mother, father and little brother in the country where they struggle to make a living on the farm. The dryness of the potatoes, the scratchiness of the hay, the beauty of the milch cows, and the wealth of birds which Klas observes in great detail become as real as if we lived there ourselves.

His mother is gentle and sweet, uncomplaining as she strives to hold the family together. She prepares all the meals, bakes pretzel rolls and buns, even handles the blood of butchering and preparing the meat. It seems manageable, somehow, compared to handling the life she lives with her husband.

As he descends into madness, he becomes frightening and unpredictable. He is tormented by the sound of ravens in his ears which will not stop, not even when he takes pills the hospital has given him to lighten his suffering. But his mental illness does not effect only himself, as no illness in a family can be contained within just one member. The entire family listens for unusual sounds which indicate what he may be up to. (Is he setting fire  to the house in the boiler room where he has chosen to sleep? No, he’s simply beating the rugs and furniture to rid it of bugs that only he can sense.)

One lives with a terrible fear when one lives with a person who is mentally ill. Not only is the health of the person at risk, normal everyday life becomes impaired. What one, little thing will disrupt the day and make everyone live on edge for the rest of the week?

Bannerhed does a brilliant job of portraying such a life. His writing is beautiful, and his description, if not lengthy beyond imagination, is quite picturesque.  But the utter hopelessness of this story, the way there was nothing that could redeem any of them, brought me to a despair I still feel this morning. Perhaps that is a mark of a talented writer; perhaps this piercing writing is why so many of my fellow Shadow Jury members gave this a perfect score.

But, I am not surprised it didn’t make the official IFFP short list. I could not bear the laborious reading which became bleaker at every page and offered only death as a way out.

Find other thoughts from fellow Shadow Jury members here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.