Amatka by Karin Tidbeck

Rating: 4.4 (out of 10)

People often conflate pity with sympathy. Both words may refer, superficially, to a feeling of compassion for another’s misfortune; contextually, they can have radically different uses. Sympathy more often carries with it some notion of equity – it asks that compassion be born of justness, that understanding is earned because it is shared. Conversely, pity holds a note of condescension from the pitying, and a certain amount of solicitousness on the part of the pitied. Sympathy is meant to strengthen bonds between people; pity makes a spectacle of suffering and consolation, dividing us into spectators and subjects, widening the gap.
The cardinal sin of Amatka is that it makes its protagonist, Vanja, far more pitiable than sympathetic. The novel practically sobs her into existence. It is one thing to make a character an introvert, and quite another to bludgeon the reader with her reticence, to exhibit her meekness as a demand for empathy. But that is exactly what Karin Tidbeck does here.
The world of the novel is an interesting one, a place where language literally has the power to shape reality, so much so that things must be named repeatedly, or they will lose their form and turn into an ooze of noxious goo. As a result, the authorities exhibit an undue amount of control over the behavior of, and by extension the thoughts of, the citizens they police. Vanja dreams of a boot-free neck, with predictably tragic results.
I am usually fully on board for stories where systemic oppression is addressed, but in this case the “evil system” and “innocent victim” are codified in such absolute, unsubtle terms that it comes off as a jaundiced, writerly construction rather than a lived-in world. And lest you think I am mistaken in my estimation of how Vanja and this novel are meant to be read, the ending literally valorizes the woeful fawning of its hero, spelling it out in no uncertain terms. It is one thing to nudge a reader’s sympathies, and quite another to push them over a cliff.

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