Jagannath introduces an immense talent who is sure to create many more thrilling worlds.
Karin Tidbeck’s Jagannath collects 13 short stories that create unique, ingenious worlds. Whether using a character-based approach or weaving fairy tales, generating footnotes or writing in epistolary form, the author fills each story with rich detail and an abundance of soul.
From the very first story Jagannath is clearly something special. “Beatrice” opens the book with “Franz Hiller, a physician, fell in love with an airship.” This sets the tone for the entire collection, showcasing Tidbeck’s deceptively blunt prose married with her love of weird, imaginative scenarios. That direct, forceful writing is necessary to set up complicated plots. It is also worth noting that Tidbeck writes in Swedish and in English, and this collection includes work originally written in English as well as stories that Tidbeck herself translated from Swedish. Yet even in English, the work has a distinct Scandinavian quality, thanks to the meticulous, eloquent language and references to Norse mythology and folklore.
Certain filaments bind these diverse tales into an organic whole. Tidbeck’s attention turns repeatedly to bodies: human, mechanical, plant, animal and even god bodies, detailed sometimes to the point of the grotesque. This bodily fascination grounds work – much of which would be considered fantasy or science fiction – in a way that even readers who avoid genre fiction should still enjoy. For instance, the title story, the last one in the collection, concerns a society of people living within a giant “Mother” that’s organic yet operates like a machine, and the combination of her pink, edible internal walls alongside her engine and pistons is grotesque yet weirdly familiar. When Rak – the story’s main character – journeys into Mother’s skull, it is described as, “inside, gently lit in red, was Mother’s brain: a small space surrounded by cables winding into flesh.” Mother, in a way, is all at once an ark, a steamship, a beehive, a city and a nursery, yet these disparate threads all weave together with ease. The painful, sometimes even lurid details on which Tidbeck focuses are universal.
Many of the stories in Jagannath have feminist and queer undertones, yet Tidbeck approaches these themes with care and even curiosity rather than with a megaphone; such themes are entirely organic to the work even though they aren’t the focus. Tidbeck often introduces these elements by subverting expectations. In “Beatrice,” for example, she introduces the primary male and female protagonists in a way that makes it seem as if they will be a romantic pair, yet the result is something different, which in turn makes the reader ponder why she or he expected the union.
As with most collections, some pieces work better than others, though there are no real duds. Highlights include “Pyret,” written in the style of a research paper, a tale of small mountain- dwelling creatures; “Cloudberry Jam,” the story of a child made in a tin can; “Reindeer Mountain,” a tale of sisterhood, family and fairies; and the aforementioned title story, “Jagannath.” Less successful are the slight stories “Miss Nyberg and I,” about an artist and a little creature named Brown, and “Herr Cederberg,” which concerns a mechanical bumblebee.
Tidbeck has a tendency to end her stories abruptly, yet in most cases this works because these mic drops come after heart-wrenching or uplifting events and the reader is left to ponder what just happened. The author respects her readers and, with an admirable restraint, doesn’t over-explain what happens. She does the hard work of creating these unexpected, mesmerizing worlds and allows readers to play and ponder within them rather than keep us on rails.
Jagannath introduces an immense talent who is sure to create many more thrilling worlds. In a preface, author Elizabeth Hand calls Tidbeck “so extraordinarily gifted she appears to have sprung full-blown into the literary world, like Athena from the head of Zeus.” Tidbeck’s arrival is swift and assured, and indeed lives up to that hearty endorsement.