Let Me Sing You Gentle Songs is a story of an unusual and unexpected friendship between two women.
Linda Olsson lives and writes in Auckland, New Zealand. She was, however, born in Stockholm where she studied law and pursued a career in banking until she left Sweden in 1986. Since then, she has lived in Kenya, Singapore, Britain and Japan, but has been a permanent resident in New Zealand since 1990. Her novels often have Sweden as well as New Zealand as a backdrop.
Let Me Sing You Gentle Songs is her debut novel (2005). It became an instant success and has been translated into several languages. Although Olsson has Swedish as her mother tongue, the novel was written and published in English. Reviewers have commented on her beautiful, idiosyncratic English something that Olsson finds flattering.
The protagonist of Let Me Sing You Gentle Songs, Veronika, is a writer in her early thirties. She travels to Sweden to finish the book she is writing. She rents a house in the countryside and gradually befriends Astrid, a reclusive older woman who has lived in the village all her life. We soon understand that Astrid and Veronika both have suffered great losses in their lives.
In the following excerpt, which is Chapter 26 in the novel, Veronika shares with Astrid the tragic details of her journey to New Zealand to reunite with James, the love of her life. "Let me tell you when time ended," she says.
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"Let Me Sing You Gentle Songs" as plain text
Let Me Sing You Gentle Songs
I whisper 'Yes' and 'Always', as I lie
Waiting for thunder from a stony sky.
It was the first weekend of November and the summer that had never quite ended began again. The days were warm, but the nights still cool. It was early morning and it was Saturday.
While I lay quietly waiting for James to wake up, I pressed my leg against his, absorbing his warmth through my skin. He lay on his stomach, arms outstretched, one over the edge of the bed, the other across my chest. His breathing was soft, almost inaudible. I heard the morning paper being tucked into our mailbox just outside the window, which was pulled up an inch or two. I could see that it was light, but I had not yet learned to interpret the shades of daylight. Southern Hemisphere November light. Late spring or early summer, so unlike any November I had known before. Here, it was as if summer and winter were intertwined: there was summer in the midst of winter, winter in the midst of summer. And there was no autumn, no spring, no time for anticipation, no time for remembrance. Only the present. Or perhaps I had just not yet developed the sensitivity required to distinguish the subtle season changes. I still had three unexplored months before my first year in New Zealand would be complete.
There was an almost imperceptible change in the rhythm of James's breathing and I knew he was awake. His hand on my chest moved and cupped my breast. I turned and faced him as his eyes opened.
His eyes were always wide open when we made love, looking straight into mine. Like those of a small child, they expressed every shift of emotion: passion, pleasure, excitement, tenderness. And joy, always joy.
We stayed in bed until hunger drove us out. In the kitchen we opened the doors to the veranda and took our coffee and toast outside. The sky was clear, with only the occasional light cloud dissolving in the high wind. It was still cool, but you could sense that the day would be warm.
'Ah, what a day. Let's go to the beach,' James said, standing on the steps leading down into the garden, his eyes on the sky.
Then, the words that would change everything. My words.
Just the two. There are so many others I could have chosen. I could have said, 'No, let's take the ferry to Waiheke and go bicycling.' Or 'Let's walk down to Cox's Bay.' Or 'Let's walk into town, go to the art gallery, have lunch.' Or just 'No, I don't really feel like the beach.' I could have said, 'I think I am pregnant.'
Instead, all I said was, 'All right.'
While I showered, James started to prepare lunch. Bread, eggs, olives, tomatoes. Mussels, cheese. Beer and water. I stood in the doorway watching him putting everything together. I watched his hands and felt an urge to hold them, to put them on my body. He grinned and stuck an olive in his mouth.
On the way, we stopped at a petrol station to fill the car and get some ice for the chilly-bin. Traffic was light as we drove west. We had decided on Karekare and as we turned off the main road onto the meandering steep drive down to the beach I was again struck by the view. Lush green bush, reminiscent of a tropical forest yet distinctly different. It looked new. Raw, recently created, but at the same time prehistoric and untainted by humans. I felt as if I could still see the structure, the overall shape of the land, before it was inhabited.
At the bottom of the road there were small houses with defiant flowerbeds of petunias and geraniums. There seemed to be no connection between these quaint dwellings and the stark landscape. Even on such a cheerful, bright, early summer day Karekare was haunting, awe-inspiring, and to me the small houses seemed out of place, as if they had been conceived with an entirely different, safe, ordinary environment in mind. This seemed a place to admire more than love, I thought. It inspired a spiritual reaction, an acute awareness of human insignificance.
We parked and unpacked and, with our arms full, waded across the stream and onto the black sand, already warm under our feet. The beach was almost empty, with a group of lifesavers assembled around a four-wheel-drive bike and an inflatable rescue boat. The flags were up.
The sea crashed onto the sand and a fine gauze of sea spray softened the view over the shimmering expanse beyond. We spread our mats and James opened the beach umbrella and secured it in the sand. We sat for a while, looking out over the sea. Seagulls screamed high overhead. And this is the next point where my words might have changed everything.
'Feel like a little swim?' he said.
I could have said, 'Okay, for once I think I will.' Or 'Yes, but I'll only go in to my knees.' Or I could have said, 'James, I think I am pregnant.' Instead, I said, 'You know I don't really like swimming here. You go; I'll stay here and read.'
He pulled on his wetsuit and again sat for a moment beside me. I was on my stomach, my book open in front of me. I was rereading The Werewolf by Axel Sandemose. I had been thinking of interweaving the story with the narrative of my own book. I was reading carefully, focusing on structure, a pencil in my hand.
'It's perfect,' James said, squinting as he looked out over the sea. I half turned, leaning on my elbow to follow his gaze, but then lay down again. 'We'll eat when I'm back,' he said, and I felt him bending over and pressing his lips onto a spot at the nape of my neck. I smiled to myself, but I didn't tum. I didn't see him pick up the board and wander across the sand down to the water. I didn't see him wade into the water, drift seawards, catch the first wave.
You told me, Astrid, that it is impossible to say what it is that makes you know that summer has peaked. That one day, when the sun is as high in the sky as the day before, the water as warm, the grass as green, you just know.
I lay on my blanket and read, then rested my head on my arms and dozed off. But as abruptly as if I'd been doused in icy water, I woke. I knew. It wasn't the stretch of time that had passed. Nor were there any alarms, any screams. The sky was still blue, the seagulls still circled high above. A woman played with a dog on the flat mirror of wet sand along the edge of the water. But I knew.
I stood and with my hands shielding my eyes I looked out over the sea. There was a small cluster of swimmers well inside the flags, and a few a little further off. A couple of young boys were chasing a frisbee. But there were no surfers.
In silence my body began to move. My feet landed on the black sand as they picked up speed, running towards the lifeguards. I was racing, but the world around me moved in slow motion, holding me back. The first lifeguard turning to face me, then screaming to the others, their swift movements getting the rescue boat into the water and jumping on board. To me, it all took place in absolute silence and with unbearable slowness.
I ran down to the water, my eyes on the orange boat zigzagging through the breaking waves. People gathered around me but they were in another world, on the other side of a gigantic gulf that swallowed all sound. Water splashed around my feet as I ran along the beach, following the direction of the boat. A girl in a yellow lifeguard T-shirt ran beside me, her arm reaching out to catch mine. The boat was now further from shore and dipping out of view between the waves. I felt my teeth begin to chatter as I stopped and stood in ankle-deep water. The girl in the yellow T-shirt put her arm around my shoulders and we stood silently, our eyes on the thundering sea, where the boat was now an orange speck.
I felt as if all stood still, as if my own breathing had stopped. Then I saw the boat returning, still dipping in and out of view, but each time emerging a little closer. And suddenly I could sense the lack of urgency. It was no longer a rescue operation.
They carried him up to the makeshift lifeguard base and placed him on a blanket. There were no attempts at CPR or mouth to mouth. The lifeguards stood back and I fell to my knees, my hands reaching out to touch him. I licked the salt water from his eyelids. I put my ear to his chest. I whispered into his ear, the words of our entire life. I put my ear close to his mouth and listened for an answer. Above us the pitiless sun, while the world swirled incomprehensible around the stillness that was the two of us. Then the violent crashing of the victorious sea.
There was a small cut above his left eyebrow and a deep scratch along the length of his left arm. That was all. His head had fallen to the side facing me. I put my hands on his cheeks, bending down to press my own against his. I lay down beside him, stroking his hair.
Eventually, someone gently pulled me up and the girl in the yellow T-shirt wrapped a blanket around my shoulders. There were people gathered around us, their faces pale moons, some crying. They put him on a stretcher and carried him up to the clubhouse. I walked slowly and it surprised me that others were running. There was loud talk, screaming. I noted the commotion with detached surprise.
I sat on a chair in the bare lifeguard clubhouse, a cup of scalding tea on the table in front of me. Around me, there was a world to which I no longer belonged. It was if a heavy door had shut with a sigh and left me outside, alone. I could remember the morning, making love, packing, driving to the beach, but it seemed as if in another time. When I was still alive.