"The Memoirs of Stockholm Sven" | Reviewed by Chris Stuckenschneider
“The Memoirs of Stockholm Sven” isn’t a memoir, but it’s written as such, told in first person by a fictional hunter who spent years eking out a living in Svalbard, an Arctic archipelago off the coast of Norway and Greenland.
Author Nathaniel Ian Miller’s engrossing debut was inspired by a man who lived in Svalbard in the 1920s. Miller’s book makes for a fascinating read, Sven’s character initially depressive and hard boiled, gradually changing because of his life-and-death experiences and the people he meets in the tough, unforgiving land he comes to call home.
As a child, Sven was fascinated with tales of the Arctic. Though he longs for a challenging job, he takes an unfulfilling one in his native Stockholm, a job he detests. At 22, Sven becomes a nanny for his sister Olga’s children, Wilmer and Helga. After Olga lost her third child, she grew despondent and unable to aptly care for her offspring.
The children sorely try his patience but Sven forms a bond with Helga, who loves his stories of the Arctic as much as Sven enjoys telling them. The girl has a sense of adventure like Sven. When the children reach school age, they no longer need a nanny and Sven is adrift again. It’s Olga who suggests Sven take a job as a coal miner in Svalbard, an idea Helga doesn’t embrace, reminding Sven he must return and have “something grand” to tell her.
Though Sven thought he was prepared for the drudgery of the mining job, it’s worse than he imagined, as is his loneliness. Nine months after being in the mine, Sven is injured in an avalanche, his face permanently disfigured. Depressed and desperate, Sven’s find hope and salvation in his friendship with Charles MacIntyre.
Charles opens his heart and home to Sven, sharing books with him and earning Sven’s trust. The man becomes his lifelong friend, as do others—among them a trapper who teaches Sven to survive in the Arctic wilderness, a hardscrabble existence Sven couldn’t have imagined that eventually comes full circle, reintroducing him to a young woman, and eventually to her daughter.
It’s difficult to pigeonhole “The Memoirs of Stockholm Sven,” an interesting, unpredictable read—both an atmospheric survival tale and a book about love, devotion, perseverance and acceptance. Readers will admire Sven and feel compassion and empathy for his bravery and forbearance. His character is unforgettable.