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Amatka Paperback – June 27, 2017
This month's Book With Buzz: "Little Fires Everywhere" by Celeste Ng
From the bestselling author of Everything I Never Told You, a riveting novel that traces the intertwined fates of the picture - perfect Richardson family and the enigmatic mother and daughter who upend their lives. See more
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“What elevates [Amatka] is the skill of Tidbeck’s execution and the sheer weirdness of a world in which the very building blocks of reality depend so completely on how we perceive them.” —New Scientist
“Reading [Amatka] is a remarkable exercise in which the borders of perception and communication fluctuate and bend…. A parable like those of Franz Kafka…. Amatka possesses the qualities of a fable and the febrile brilliance of weird fiction at its most inventive and self-questioning.” —Weird Fiction Review
“In her brilliant and bizarre novel Amatka, Karin Tidbeck evokes with quiet precision a dystopian reality that becomes more eerie by the page. The lines blur between fabrication and truth, between annihilation and creation, between bureaucratic obedience and heroic defiance. This book will grip you and move you. Though Amatka may be a fantastical place, we should all heed its warnings.” —Helen Phillips, author of The Beautiful Bureaucrat
“Tidbeck sets up a world rife with mystery…. [Amatka] calls to mind Ursula K. Le Guin’s…speculative fictions of social unrest…. The comparison would be daunting for a writer of lesser gifts, lesser gumption, but Tidbeck invites it, boldly.” —Bookforum
“This is a story about the way reality crumbles—a timely and troubling novel that ranks among the best works of queer science fiction.” —Slate
“A phenomenal and wholly original work from a writer to watch, Amatka is a book that is truly out of this world.” —Bustle
“[Amatka’s] surreal vision of deadly conspiracies, political oppression, and curtailed freedom couldn't be more eerily timely.” —NPR.org
“Compelling. . . . I recommend that you lay your hands on a copy.” —Ann Leckie, author of Ancillary Justice
“Tidbeck's haunting world made of words is undeniably disturbing and provocative.” —The Chicago Tribune
“A fresh dystopian twist. . . . Tidbeck's first novel, translated by the author from her native Swedish, is grim, spare, and fascinating.” —Library Journal
“Karin Tidbeck’s Amatka is a stunning, truly original exploration of the mysteries of reality and what it means to be human. It’s brutally honest and uncompromising in its vision—a brilliant short story writer has been revealed as an even more brilliant novelist. One of my favorite reads of the past few years, an instant classic.” --Jeff VanderMeer, author of the Southern Reach trilogy
“Tidbeck reimagines reality and the power of language in her dystopian sci-fi novel. . . . Tidbeck introduces the mysteries and mechanics of her world slowly while leaving the origins of these pioneers opaque. Her ending takes a turn into much weirder territory, but her tense plotting, as well as the questions she raises about language, control, and human limits make this a very welcome speculative fiction novel.” —Publishers Weekly
“Karin Tidbeck is a brilliant conjurer of worlds, a fabulist armed with an imagination as fiercely strange as any I have ever encountered. Her fiction is built on a foundation of improbabilities and even outright impossibilities, and if you surrender to its increasingly bold claims on reality you will walk away surprised, thrilled, and in all likelihood changed forever.” —Matt Bell, author of Scrapper
About the Author
Karin Tidbeck is originally from Stockholm, Sweden. She lives and works in Malmö as a freelance writer, translator, and creative-writing teacher, and writes fiction in Swedish and English. She debuted in 2010 with the Swedish short story collection Vem är Arvid Pekon? Her English debut, the 2012 collection Jagannath, was awarded the Crawford Award 2013 and short-listed for the World Fantasy Award.
Top customer reviews
A lot of times, you'll hear Europeans talk about what is missing from American literature, and usually they can't quite explain what it is. I can't explain it either, but much like Potter, I recognize it when I see it. It's here in spades. This book has some of the quiet, langorousness of Kazuo Ishiguro's "Never Let Me Go" or some of the better work by Haruki Murakami (e.g., "Norwegian Wood" or "Kafka on the Shore"). Much like those, you work your way toward a climax and resolution, but there is no rush, no hurry, only an urgent, circuitous exploration.
I may go explore more of Tidbeck's work, if I think that I have the fortitude. Great, great book.
As Vanja becomes bolder in her willingness to challenge the governing authorities and pursue a legendary woman who disappeared from Essre years ago to plot a rebellion, the reality of this language-molded world becomes threatened. Readers hoping that Karin Tidbek will answer all of the provocative questions that this novel raises may come away dissatisfied. But those who are looking for an impeccably written and timeless novel, with an unresolved ending that can be studied and dissected for years to come, will find Amatka brimming with fodder for thought and discussion. Amatka would make a terrific book club selection or assigned reading for English students.
Tidbeck sets her story on an unnamed planet which had been colonized long ago. There were five colonies originally, but early on we learn that an unexplained catastrophe destroyed one of the colonies. Life in the colonies is a traditional sort of collective dystopia—a trudge of existence on a gray sky, bland food (all of it based off of mushrooms), lots of bureaucracy and dull jobs (many assigned to you), children raised apart from their parents, procreation not so much regulated but strongly obligatory, top-down rulemaking, and an overall sense of oppression and bleakness. The standout detail is the way in which everything in this world needs to be named and marked on a regular basis or they stop “being what they are” and become instead an amorphous gooey substance, something we see happen within the first few chapters when the main character Vanja forgets to name her suitcase, prompting an embarrassing incident and a visit from a biohazard “cleaning” team whose job it is to prevent the spread of un-making.
Vanja has a suitcase because she’s just arrived from the central colony of Essre. She’s been sent by her company to the more-on-the-frontier Amatka to investigate colony’s hygiene practices/needs in order to see if they might purchase products made in Essre instead of just using their own. Amatka is, as noted, is more on the fringes, set out on the tundra at the edge of a large lake that freezes nightly, and this cold, bleak, frozen setting not only adds to the atmosphere of the novel (here’s that Insomnia kinship), but also does a nice job of mirroring the frozen lake of Vanja’s life. She’s a lonely, withdrawn person, so noticeably thus that another character quickly picks up on this, telling her, “you don’t exactly seem like you enjoy being around people. I mean, this whole thing of making small talk and being friendly.” That character is Nina, who shares the house Vanja is staying at with mushroom-farmer Ivar (the laconic father of Nina’s children) and retired doctor Ulla, the classic sharp-tongued/sharp-minded old lady who says what she thinks and damn the reactions.
Mysteries abound in Amatka: what has happened in Vanja’s past to make her the person she is, what was the catastrophe that wiped out the fifth colony, why do objects in this world un-become and can they re-become (what they were or something else), what does Ulla know and why isn’t she telling, what happened a few years back that caused the colony to lose over a hundred inhabitants, why is the central committee becoming so stingy about the world’s stockpile of “real paper,” is the tundra/this planet really as empty as the colonists are all told it is, who made those pre-existing weird-looking structures the original colonists came across, and a few more that I won’t mention so as to avoid spoilers. The raising of questions and the unspooling of answers (or quasi-answers) is deftly handled, as is Vanja’s growing determination to get to the bottom of things, despite the constant background social pressure of conformity, the more tangible fear of arrest, and the more personal conflict that Nina, with whom Vanja falls into a tenderly depicted romance, is adamant that one needn’t speak of such things or ask such questions (and certainly never try to find answers). Why Nina is like that is yet another mystery. Nina’s staunch “don’t go there” attitude is counterbalanced by Ulla’s clear subversive bent, a stance shared, though far less loudly, by the local librarian. I can’t say the mysteries themselves are particularly compelling, but something about the pacing, Tidbeck’s stark, simply-on-its surface prose, and the general atmospheric nature of the work pulled me along, or perhaps “lulled” me along would be a more accurate description.
The book is relatively slim, at least compared to most of my sci-fi/fantasy reading, and thanks to the repressive nature of the society and the characters’ themselves, who are often tersely to the point, there’s a sense of distance between reader and character. But that isn’t to say the characters are not fully three-dimensional, complex creations. They are that, and despite not having a lot of pages or words, one gets a good sense of individual personalities, their fears and motivations (though not always right away). I wouldn’t call them vivid, but more efficiently detailed in their domestic humanity.
Conceptually, the book raises some big questions. The most obvious ones, thanks to the naming/marking rituals, has to do with the power of language and the communal nature of reality. At first, it seems that language is a defense, but if one can keep something what it “is” by naming it, that begs the question, can one then make it something it is not? Or make something new? And is that sort of freedom/power of imagination something to be reveled in or feared and so controlled (it’s probably not coincidence that the best known dissenter is a poet)? Does one have the right to not play by society’s agreed upon rules if by doing so one threatens not just the society’s structures but people’s actual existence? And what sort of existence is it anyway—where does that sliding scale or inverse relationship between the quality of the lives lived versus the willingness to break the society leave us? Another question is does it make sense to be bound by tradition/history in a new world/era (a literal new world in the book’s case, but our own world is regularly recreated—the 21st century is not the 20th or the 17th)? Does a rigid adherence to keeping things as they are keep us safe or limit us?
Amatka is a tough book for me to recommend. I can see lots of people not caring much for it—finding the dystopic elements too familiar and, conversely, the more original aspects too weird and vague; finding the prose too simple and straightforward, finding the characters not particularly engaging. But while I can totally get those responses, for me there was just something about the bleak empty setting combined with the distant but oddly interesting main character and a host of even more interesting questions regarding language, identity, reality, and society, that I’d say pick it up and give it a few chapters (definitely a few chapters as the book spends I’d say a little too much time on the hygiene details early on, causing some balance issues) and see if it grows on you like it did on me.
(originally appeared on fantasyliterature.com)