This book left me hungry: hungry for answers, hungry for resolution, hungry for some of those pasty, beige mushrooms Ivar spent his best years harvesting in the tunnels beneath Amatka.
Karin Tidbeck’s science fiction novel opens with a weary traveler: a stranger in a strange land. Her name is Vanja, and she’s traveling to Amatka by train. Vanja is in her thirties and her self-talk leaves me wanting to give her a montage makeover and a long hug. She’s nervous. She thinks she only got this job – this eccentric position that requires her to ask people about their personal hygiene product preference – due to nepotism. She’s nervous, uncertain, and takes comfort in routine and repetition. What is Vanja afraid of?
To calm herself, Vanja marks her surroundings: suitcase, pencil, boots. Wait, is this a tic? A social quirk? A strange cultural custom? What’s going on?
Vanja’s train rolls into the city of Amatka, and grayness greets her at the door. Welcome Comrade. The phrase chills my bones as a millennial American who’s cultural ignorance conjures up Big Bad stereotypes from Boomer-era films. Tidbeck sets Amatka in
Russia a frozen, distant land where everyone shuffles to and from government assigned jobs. Their frowning faces tell Vanja that Amatka is wary of newcomers, but she’s not on the clock yet, so their sanitary preferences can wait. Instead, Vanja’s housemate, Nina, greets her and leads to their industrial housing unit. These homes are for adults only. Children’s houses exist separate from their parent’s dwellings to prevent any unnatural family bonding over the welfare of the communist community. The structure of Amatka’s houses remind me of Bethesda’s Fallout flats: barren, cookie-cutter ghosts of a Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood song.
We learn on Day One that everyone shares Vanja’s quirk for marking. In fact, it’s not really a quirk at all but an essential function of society like putting out your garbage on alternating Tuesdays and Thursdays. Through drips and whispers, Tidbeck hints that marking is how things sustain their shape. Whether through magic or science, it’s unknown, but marking feels a bit like returning to Play-Doh creations left in the sun and forcing their sagging edges back into make-believe monochromatic nouns. This slow realization changes how I read descriptions of the city. Now everything is malleable and spongy, the world’s true nature as gelatinous as the suitcase Vanja forgets to mark (on purpose…?). It turns to putty before her eyes, and Nina shudders at the glob of unformed glue seeping across her floor. She speaks of it spreading like the infamous Blob. Act quick! Call in the cleaners! How could you be so careless!
Vanja’s new housemates chastise her like a puppy who pissed on the new carpet and just about ruined everything.
Something isn’t right in Amatka. Vanja picks up on the unhappiness of its residents, and it awakens an unhappiness in her. Throughout the book, we watch Vanja transform from meek to curious to zealous. The arc is steep, but once it crests, there’s no turning back for our unlikely protagonist. Vanja’s story our story, humanity’s story, and Tidbeck weaves the plot through themes of art, science, and the creative, fluid nature of existence. Like the poems Vanja finds in the local library, Amatka is full of savory layers that peel to reveal hidden meanings deep underneath the plain, formatted surface. Language shapes us more than we know.
“There was something special about Berols Annas tongue. As if she understood the essence of words and subjects deeper than anyone else. Her poems were not ordinary rhymes used to mark or describe the world. Vanja felt as if greenhouses no longer needed labeling, because the words of Berols Anna had established their existence once and for all. “
-Karin Tidbeck, Amatka
By the time Amatka enters its third act, the pages rush by like the train Vanja rode in on. Our heroine rips off the heavy chains of unhappiness and thrusts herself into the adrenaline of danger and truth. I had no idea what would happen as each scene transformed from a movie playing in black and white to an abstract painting that shimmered and stretched into something new every time I refocused.
Then, it was over. I turned the last page expecting more, but there was nothing.
And yet, so much.
I’ve never had an ending leave me so, so hungry. I questioned what I just devoured. I reread the last ten pages to make sure I didn’t miss anything. Vanja’s ending was so violent but so peaceful, so beautiful but so horrifying.
Am I selling this book to you yet?
After sitting on the novel for a few weeks, I’ve decided I love it. I love its ambiguity. I love the questions it raises and never answers. I love the way it lit a fire in my soul and instead of extinguishing the flames with a neatly wrapped finale, left me burning with passion: passion I channeled into two very opinionated blog posts about writing.
Vanja set me free too.
You should read this book if: you’re a fan of poetry and science fiction – which go together more often than you think. Tidbeck covers a lot in her short novel (feminism, autonomy, civilization, government, language, freedom…), and I barely scratch the surface with this review. But this novel changed me. It wasn’t the political commentary or Vanja’s character’s transformation; it was Tidbeck’s passion for art, for creating color in a world that’s gray until we mark each hue with a name.
The possibilities are endless.