The International Booker Prize Reading Challenge: The Details, by Ia Genberg, translated by Kira Josefsson

When I was younger I often thought I should travel more and farther, spend more time in foreign countries, that I should be in a constant state of velocity so that I could get out there and truly live, but with time I have come to understand that everything I was looking for was right here, inside of me, inside the things that surround me, in the money jobs that became my actual jobs, in the constancy of the everyday, in the eyes of the people I meet when I allow my gaze to linger.

- from The Details, by Ia Genberg, translated by Kira Josefsson

The third book I’ve read for the International Booker Prize 2024 Reading Challenge is The Details, by Ia Genberg, translated by Kira Josefsson, which is one of the six books that have been selected for this year's shortlist, announced earlier today. 

The Details is one of the shorter novels on this year’s longlist, with just 176 pages, and I managed to read it over the course of an afternoon. As soon as I’d finished it, however, I found myself wanting to instantly start it again - which might have to wait until after I’ve completed the challenge!

The novel is set in Stockholm, written in the first-person, and begins with a narrator experiencing a fever from an unnamed illness (possibly, we can deduce, Covid). In its throes she feels drawn to take a book from her shelves that was gifted to her in 1996 by a previous lover, called Johanna, when she was also suffering from a malaria-induced fever following a trip to East Africa. Over the course of the chapter, the unnamed narrator recalls her relationship with Johanna, their unequal exchange of gifts (Johanna is from a wealthy family, and lives off a generous allowance), their shared love of books, and exchange of ideas. Ultimately, however, their relationship fails, and each subsequent chapter in the book describes a different friend, lover, or other key figure in her life whom she loses, in one way or another.

While the first two novels I’ve read for the International Booker Prize Reading Challenge were imbued with a strong sense of place and setting, The Details is all about people, and its cast of characters shine more brightly in it than its Stockholm setting. The narrator herself is never named, but as the book progresses we glean more and more details about her life and character, unfurling through her depictions of others. 

The narrative of the book isn’t strictly linear, looping back and forth in time as our feverish narrator remembers four different relationships in her life, but much of it is set in the late 1990s, and at the turn of the millennium. Reading it in our ultra-connected times, it is fascinating to see how easily people can step into and disappear out of the narrator’s life, in a time before Facebook, Google, and even mobile phones, initially. Despite being set in such a distant age, I think that The Details will appeal to younger readers: although not only a coming-of-age tale, I loved its depiction of the narrator’s twenty-something life, and freedom to drift from job to job, party to party, sublet apartment to sublet apartment. 

This is also very much a reader’s book, in which characters give, borrow, and debate books and authors - hilariously, in one case:

‘We slept with each other, he gave me a book, we chatted,’ I replied. Niki crossed her arms and shut her eyes for a couple of seconds. Her eyelids twitched, it seemed like her eyes were moving fast underneath. A betrayal, I had fraternised with the enemy, and now I was watching Niki process this information. Nothing was settled. Then she looked at me. 'What book was it?’ The question made no sense, an association in a new, crazy direction, as though she'd received a message from one of her gods of emotion telling her that the title was of crucial importance. 'If on a Winter's Night a Traveller,' I told her, which was the truth. When Niki kept looking at me in silence, I added, still speaking the truth: 'Wonderful. I read it in one day.’ She nodded thoughtfully, uncrossed her arms and smiled at me.

I would give this book 4.25 stars out of 5, and would recommend it to anyone who enjoyed The Trio, by fellow Swedish author Johanna Hedmann (which was one of my favourite books of 2022).  Although the ending of one chapter left me with tears rolling down my face, I would say that overall, despite exploring the theme of loss, it is a hopeful and uplifting book.

Read an excerpt from The Details here.

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