• Cathy Castling

Review: They Will Drown In Their Mother's Tears

Updated: Nov 12, 2020

I collaborated with The Incessant Bookworm for my original review of Saskia Vogel's translation of Johannes Anyuru's dystopian novel They Will Drown In Their Mother's Tears. It was a great opportunity to get to know someone new in the book blogger community and a fantastic experience to share a piece of literature in translation with theincessantbookworm.

Anyuru’s novel has been highly praised since its English publication by Two Lines Press in November 2019 and it was the winner of the prestigious August Prize for Best Literary Fiction.

Johannes Anyuru’s speculative novel explores themes that some may find difficult, but need to be addressed. They Will Drown in Their Mother’s Tears is comparable to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale in the fact that they are not books to be enjoyed, but rather books to make you think. They both draw uneasy parallels between a “dystopian future” that could well be a forecast of our own.

The story begins in the middle of a terror attack in a Swedish bookstore, in which our narrator is a participant. We follow our unidentified narrator as she struggles to figure out who she is, where she is, and why she cannot remember anything. After thwarting the attack, the young woman is taken to a mental health facility where she begins to write her story, or the bits of it that she remembers. She meets with a journalist, who is also Muslim, who believes her story to be made up or a reaction to a traumatic experience. But as the journalist is leaving at the end of their first meeting, the young woman says three words that shock him to the core – “The Rabbit Yard”. From then on, the journalist cannot get this young woman’s story out of his head. So, he attempts to figure out who this young girl really is and where she’s really come from.

The narrative of the story is confusing but also intriguing. The narrative jumps between the young muslim woman and the journalist. Flashbacks to different times and places add to the confusion that is felt when reading the novel. I appreciate not everyone enjoys such a jarring narrative style, but I thought it added an extra element to the story. Each change of narrator takes you a second to figure out who’s point of view you’re now reading. The confusion and chaos mimics the feelings of many characters throughout the novel. This choppy narrative allows you to identify with the female protagonist. Although she participated in a violent terror attack, you can feel the confusion, frustration, and, at times, fear that she feels. Anyuru has used this tactic to create empathy for a character who readers usually wouldn’t be able to connect with. The story pulls you in with each page as you, along with the journalist, try to figure out who this girl really is and how she ended up in this position.

Readers of the English version may or may not be aware of the fact that They Will Drown In Their Mother’s Tears was originally written and published in Swedish. Unfortunately, I cannot read Swedish so I have relied on the reviews of those who can for an opinion of the “quality” of this translation. In her review, Eva Wissting noted that Saskia Vogel, the translator, paid close attention to the language that she used in her translation which mirrored the attention to detail that Johannes Anyuru paid to language in the original Swedish. She also noted that the translation hadn’t deviated unnecessarily from the original, with a few exceptions.

Being from a translation background and having studied translation theory, I am heavily influenced by some of the ideas and thoughts of theorists when reading a novel in translation. For many theorists, and readers, the aim of translation is to carry the meaning of the original text over into the translation and create a translation that is easy to understand and enjoyable to read. For me, Vogel has created a thrilling atmosphere with her translation that captures the readers’ attention and makes your heart beat a little bit faster. The fact that Swedish and English differ so vastly suggests that Vogel may have run into a few issues in the process of translation, but she has managed to smooth them out to bring Anyuru’s characters to life in English.

I’m still not completely sure if I enjoyed this novel as such, but it was extremely interesting if slightly unnerving. For me, if a novel can elicit such strong feelings in a reader, then it must be excellently written. It’s definitely a novel that could inspire hours upon hours of debate and it wouldn’t shock me to see it on a high school or university curriculum in the future.


Read my review of They Will Drown In Their Mother's Tears on theincessantbookworm

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