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Book Review: The Hum of Concrete: A Novel Constellation by Anna Solding

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The Hum of Concrete presents a series of short stories that begin in isolation, and then grow into something broader and more complex. Although each of the individual “constellations” that make up this book stand on their own, and some have been previously published, it is only by reading them together that the full cumulative meaning of the work is revealed . The stories take individual points of view, in youthful uncertainty, and then begin to bisect, grow, and develop along with the characters, settings, and situations. All of the stories are set in or around the Swedish town of Malmö, a place portrayed with the vividness of memory and an intensity of transformation that usually only found in human characterisation.

There are five key characters that bisect and grow through the book. They are Bodil, Nassrin, Susanna, Estella, and Rhyme. Their stories are organised into sets grouped by senses–Feeling Malmö, Hearing Malmö, Smelling Malmö, Tasting Malmö, Seeing Malmö and a final piece on Knowing Malmö. Most of these sets are made up of three stories, each taking a specific character’s point of view, with the exception of Smelling Malmö, which has four, and Knowing Malmö, which stands on its own. Throughout the book, and before each chapter are delicate drawings and maps of the locations provided by illustrator Allan Taylor.

There is an intense intimacy in Anna Solding’s writing style. The words come as a confession: a kind of whispered tale that draws the reader in and invites collusion. The characters progress naturally through time, beginning with key moments of youth and awakening perception, and moving through coupling, and later parenthood. The stories begin with some form of painful discovery, and progress through epiphany that leads to emotional growth. Throughout the book the language remains rich and poetic, picking up on the sensual themes of each section: “There is an edible silence. Nassrin takes a bite and savours the fruity flavour of vindication.” (33)

Though the stories are rooted in the personal, everyday details of these characters’ lives, the plot encompasses the universal and somewhat political issues the characters have to deal with, including Intersex, homosexuality, awakening sexuality, unwed young mothers, post-natal depression, mature love, homelessness, poverty, prostitution, childbirth, aging, fear and loss. The stories are delivered simply, in quirky, easy to read prose that never loses its magical, edge: the vivid impression and wonder of observation:

“There is no green quite like the vulnerable lime of newly unfolded birch leaves. Bodil watches them grow from her unfamiliar window. There is no loneliness quite like the one that envelops you before a conference.” (111)

Because these are character driven stories, every observation–the minutiae of daily life co-mingling with the big questions about life and love—is immediate, intimate and accessible. Though there are male characters, this is very much a female novel, with each story pivoting on both a very female self-awakening and the notion of motherhood/nurturing in all its complexities. There are many births in this book, each unique and different, and many forms of motherhood – some gentle and easy and others difficult. The book also explores the many roles that women play as the characters explore their lives through their families and their work–teaching, working as a doctor/researcher, delivering the mail, or writing.

In each of the triptychs that form the chapters of this book, these changing lives move from the individual to collective, not only in terms of their own lives but in terms of the way in which these characters interact and link with one another–the small impacts of everyday encounters that grow into life changes. The characters are all portrayed against the city of Malmö–a city that is alternatively cold, foreign, and intensely familiar. Malmö itself is portrayed as a kind of mother, shaping and nurturing, or neglecting the people who grow within it. It remains a constant throughout the book, and is also depicted in great detail as the environment changes across time, across the city’s development, and through different seasons.

The Hum of Concrete is a beautifully written, powerful book, that presents a deep introspective look at what it means to be a woman, a mother, and beyond that, a person, growing up in the modern world. It’s a delightful, resonant read that will linger with the reader.

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About Magdalena Ball

Magdalena Ball is the author of the novels Black Cow and Sleep Before Evening, the poetry books Repulsion Thrust and Quark Soup, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Sublime Planet, Deeper Into the Pond, Blooming Red, Cherished Pulse, She Wore Emerald Then, and Imagining the Future. She also runs a radio show, The Compulsive Reader Talks. Find out more about Magdalena at www.magdalenaball.com.