“I wanted to write a novel with women playing a major role. I think it is because I feel we need to write women back into history,” Ekbäck told a packed house at the Semana Negra (Noir Week), one of Europe’s best attended annual cultural festivals, in Gijón, northern Spain. “So many books are written with historical protagonists, but not so many are women, even though they had very important roles to play.”
“In the Month of the Midnight Sun” tells of Magnus, a geologist sent to survey Lapland in 1856, a northern wilderness that was – and remains -- desolate even by Scandinavian standards, and his unconventional travelling companion Lovisa, a rich young woman who cannot bear the suffocating strictures of the day.
“In the middle of the 1800s in Sweden, women were not free, as we are today, they couldn’t have money of their own, they had to get married and they couldn’t travel alone, but travel with someone who had a kind of passport,” Ekbäck added at the festival, where she had top billing this year.
In common with her first novel, this one has an evocative sense of place, but as well as emphasising the role of women, it sets itself apart from a recent run of Scandi Noir novels insofar as it delves into the past in Lapland, Ekbäck’s ancestral homeland.
Back in the mid-nineteenth century, Lapland was a lawless as well as inhospitable disputed frontier region where the encroaching modern state clashed with the age-old ways of the Sami nomadic people, especially as missionaries tried to convert them from shamanism and what the latter saw as witchcraft.
Indeed, while the government were indeed anxious for Magnus to make maps – a craft which Ekbäck says she finds particularly intriguing -- to help fend off claims from rival powers greedily eyeing Lapland’s mineral riches, his trip is also the perfect cover for investigating what appears to be a triple murder committed by a Sami nomad in a settler community.
The two city dwellers are, however, unprepared for Lapland, especially its disorienting endless summer days, and have to improvise working as detectives, a craft which barely existed then in the modern sense.
The second novel also comes as a contrast the first, “Wolf Winter”, which was set in Lapland’s equally endless bitterly cold winter nights.
“In Swedish, Wolf Winter also refers to a time of loss and loneliness,“ Ekbäck noted.
Despite being born and brought up in Sweden, she has chosen to write in English rather than her mother tongue, because she left the country decades ago to move around the world, including a stint in Britain, where she completed a Masters in Creative Writing at Royal Holloway in 2010.
“When I left Sweden, I spoke the Swedish of a 24-year-old, of the ‘eighties,” she said. “In Royal Holloway, I had to write in English , so when I came to write a novel, I had to choose between bad Swedish and bad English, so I thought I might as well write in English.”
“I still identify as Swedish. The roots are very strong,” she added.
For the past four years, Ekbäck has lived with her husband and twin daughters (aged five) in Canmore, Canada, where she is working on a third novel.
By Martin Roberts in Gijón