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The raving thoughts of a misanthropic academic

November 25, 2012

Book Review: The Stockholm Octavo

The Stockholm OctavoThe best novels are the ones that keep you up until 4AM, wearily turning page after page, too enthralled to sleep. The best of the best transport readers into a new reality crafted by the author and demand that readers consider something bigger than the plot itself. The truly exceptional test one's understanding of the novel as a work of art, using mere words to touch the elusive realm of beauty. It is rare that any author is able to pull off such a feat and rarer still when a first-time author pulls it off so convincingly. But Ms. Karen Engelmann's debut novel, The Stockholm Octavo (Publisher: Ecco; On Sale: Oct. 23, 2012 ; Cost: $26.99), is a true gem that manages to accomplish all of the above through a compelling storyline, simple yet beautiful prose, and a thought-provoking exploration of the Divine. 

By way of plot, Engelmann's novel follows the exploits of middling bureaucrat Emil Larsson, an ambitious customs agent, stalking the ports of Stockholm during the age of monarchial revolution in the late 18th Century. Despite being of marriageable age, Mr. Larsson's will to wed is limited by his penchant for booze, women and cards. While indulging lady luck amid the dank card rooms of Gray Friars Alley, Emil becomes well acquainted with the establishment's proprietress, and soon receives an unsolicited offer from Mrs. Sparrow to read his cards in a special ritual called the octavo.

The eight card affair aims to disclose the eight individuals who will become central to Emil's quest for "love and connection." Rather than being a simple search for love like so many novels, Engelmann's work combines the mystery of the card reading tradition with the political intrigue of the times, introducing readers to a host of memorable characters ranging from scheming aristocratic ladies, to wily peasant girls, to the King of Sweden himself, Gustav III.

The diverse gaggle of characters make the story memorable in its own right, though the plot is admittedly somewhat complex. Throughout the story, Emil is obliged to find his love only by delving into the political and social intrigue besetting the Swedish Court. This makes for numerous plot twists and character nuances that require paying careful attention to each member of Emil's octavo - in addition to the numerous minor characters associated with the crème de la creme of Swedish society as portrayed in the novel. Ultimately, the book deftly incorporates the assassination of King Gustav III with Emil's quest for love rather seamlessly, making it a story that can appeal to both male and female readers. In fact, so broad is the appeal that I would be shocked if the story doesn't hit the silver screen in the near future (a real home run for Harper Collins imprimatur, Ecco).  

While the story itself is fantastic, happily, there are many more reasons to pick up Ms. Engelmann's book, not the least of which include the beauty with which she spins her lengthy yarn. One pitfall of many first-time authors (and writers in general) is the unfortunate penchant of writing in a style far too rococo to be engaging. The borderline between beautiful writing and the kitsch is quite fine, indeed. Ms. Engelmann seems to intuitively understand this and avoids crossing the threshold of the melodramatic. This allows her simply exquisite writing to capture the description of scenes without being overly floral.

Consider this brief excerpt describing an evening Emil spends with Christian and Margo Nordén, an important husband/wife duo who operate an upscale, French boutique dedicated to the craft of producing women's fans. Emil notes:

I treasure that exact moment: the scent of lemon oil, the warmth of the yellow-striped room in the candlelight, the delicious wine, lovely manners, and image of the two of them that pointed to a deep connection to the world and everything, everyone in it - the Octavo grown infinite. It made me both lighthearted and sorrowful. p.199.

At risk of overusing the word, what makes Engelmann's writing beautiful is its ability to relate the thoughts and experiences of the novel's characters in such a way that readers immediately understand the unwritten and unspoken thoughts being communicated within the story. The excerpt above demonstrates an obvious closeness between the characters, typified by Engelmann's description of the room, the lighting, and even the taste of the wine being served. But these details, indeed the entire scene, is only intended to buttress a readers' understanding of the Nordéns' relationship as a foil for the same sort of connection being sought by Emil in the novel. The result is that the audience understands what Emil is looking for without the need of the author to coarsely state the obvious. In Engelmann's case, beauty is subtlety. 

The gift of expression within The Stockholm Octavo actually speaks to the greater philosophy of relationship residing at the core of the novel - a discussion spanning the entire length of the book. At the core of Emil Larsson's search for love is his search for connection with other people. The magic of Mrs. Sparrow's octavo is that it is supposed to reveal those people who can further this end. But the ultimate lesson of the octavo is very different from early perceptions of its powers. At the end of the work, long after the plot has been more or less resolved, Emil frames his understanding of events as follows: 

I think the Octavo exists in a dimension all its own: defining the here and now, reaching back into the past, and influencing the future - like some great edifice eternally rising. If you decide to enter, you will indeed be reborn. The Octavo is the architecture of relationships that we build ourselves, and with which we build the world. p.409.

Engelmann's philosophy of relationship is best defined as the courage to allow others into our lives. While Emil is searching for love, he is obliged to entertain the graces and schemes of a number of people with whom he never would have otherwise engaged. He is repeatedly described as a loner, who must venture beyond the comforts of his lodgings in order to fulfill his octavo's quest. Along the way, he develops an "architecture of relationships" beginning with the owner of Gray Friars Alley, Mrs. Sparrow, and encompassing individuals at various levels of Swedish society. To state matters tritely, Emil exits his comfort zone and becomes embroiled in a matter of state that fills his life with excitement, adventure and perhaps love. In this way, Engelmann reminds readers of how utterly dependent we are upon those in our lives to add to its quality. And while the benefits of relationship are seldom amorous, relationships defined by philia and agape are just as important.

On the matter of theology, Engelmann presents a view of faith that is both unorthodox and skeptical of so-called, organized religions. Of God, Mrs. Sparrow notes: 

I believe that God is no father, but an infinite cipher, and that is best expressed in the eight. Eight is the ancient symbol of eternity. p.14

This strikes me as a fair enough point to contest - although envisioning God as a symbol for the infinite, an abstract mathematical notation, isn't quite as warm as thinking about God as a loving Father. Similarly, Engelmann presents key, female protagonist Johanna Grey as the victim of a mother given over to religious fervor:

Johanna's mother, exceptionally devout, declared that adorning oneself in garments of color was an affront to the Almighty. Human beings were born colorless, meant to spend their lives in prayer until crossing the bridge of death into a brilliant Paradise. p.63

In contrast to the bright colors of avarice found in the Nordéns shop and the tempting quarters of the villainess Uzanne, oozing with sensuality and treachery, Johanna's Mother viewed a life void of color as the true mark of the consecrated. With all due respect to Apple's wonderful exploration into the realm of minimalist design, Engelmann's point is that the monochromatic life seldom begets true happiness. Life requires a certain hue that is found outside the moral artifices of black and white. Sometimes the deep red of a dress, or the blue eyes of a lover are necessary to make the daily grind worthwhile. 

And so we are left with a novel that brings description to life through a rich, thoroughly original plot\ that is coupled with both a profound rumination on life and musings about humanity's relationship with itself and the divine.

Not a bad run at all for a novice author. 

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