Evocative, remarkable, dazzlingly surreal, spellbinding…with so many possibilities, it’s difficult to choose the superlatives to describe Karin Tidbeck’s brilliant, multifaceted novel Amatka (2012), recently released in English translation. An amazing feat of genre worldbuilding, it eases the reader into an offbeat setting, then picks away at that world’s supposedly mundane surface to reveal something startling, thought-provoking, and powerful underneath.
Vanja is a commercial products researcher from the city of Essre, the administrative hub of a colony world consisting of four connected settlements. She’s sent to the remote, frozen city of Amatka to study hygiene habits and determine the need for new products. Vanja’s arrival at the settlement paints a picture of a bleak, boring, bureacratic place of Soviet-like austerity. But there are bizarre undercurrents to this stark place, including an atmosphere of relentless conformity and literalism, colony-wide skin conditions, and a weekly ritual that involves marking objects with the words that describe them. Vanja, of course, takes this all for granted — it’s the run-of-the-mill furniture of her world — but her stay in Amatka is transforming. Among the quirky denizens of the city that begin to change her are a blunt radical named Ulla, an inquisitive librarian named Evgen, and especially her housemate Nina, with whom she embarks on a quiet, enlivening romance. As Vanja’s visit to Amatka becomes a prolonged stay, she experiences a growing awakening that changes her very way of thinking — and leads her to question the very nature of the reality in which she lives.
At first I had reservations about Amatka, which opens with a quiet, introspective blandness that doesn’t exactly light a fire under the narrative. But these humble early passages are part of an effective, intentional worldbuilding strategy. Vanja’s orientation in Amatka becomes the reader’s orientation to this increasingly nuanced and bizarre world. Are we on another planet? In another dimension? Why did humanity flee Earth, and what happened to the vanished fifth colony that nobody talks about? Tidbeck introduces these mysteries subtly, but in a manner that instills the setting with a potent, slow-building mystique. In the course two-hundred-odd precise and elegant pages, she leverages these intrigues into a tale that works outwardly as a surreal conspiracy thriller, a touching romance, and a genre mystery, but also examines rich literary metaphors involving creative awakening, stultifying monoculture, post-truthism, and the costs and rewards of nonconformity. It’s tempting to label Amatka as Kafkaesque or Dickian, and in light of its reality-questioning subtext it’s no wonder. But that may do a disservice to Tidbeck, who creative vision is incisive and unique. She executes the core idea with uncommon eloquence, resulting in a layered, moving masterpiece.