The Ravens by Tomas Bannerhed (Or, How I Stand Apart From The Shadow Jury on This One)

The Ravens

The Ravens fly over the farmer’s house, shrieking, predicting death.

The cover for this book is particularly well done. It shows the raven trying to soar upward, but appearing as if it will ultimately fall into some dreadful descent. Its tail becomes a smear, ineffective, and marring the picture of beauty. Marring the picture of freedom, as it seems this bird will be forever tethered to the ground instead of the heavens where it belongs.

I had a difficult time with The Ravens. It took me all of April to read 132 pages. I struggled every night to get at least five read, but they were ponderous…almost too heavy to turn. I vowed I would complete it yesterday, during the 24 Hour Read-a-thon, and so I read for several hours without relinquishing my goal until it was done. The reading didn’t get any easier for me. It became harder as I went.

The story takes place in Sweden, in the 1970’s. A boy named Klas lives with his mother, father and little brother in the country where they struggle to make a living on the farm. The dryness of the potatoes, the scratchiness of the hay, the beauty of the milch cows, and the wealth of birds which Klas observes in great detail become as real as if we lived there ourselves.

His mother is gentle and sweet, uncomplaining as she strives to hold the family together. She prepares all the meals, bakes pretzel rolls and buns, even handles the blood of butchering and preparing the meat. It seems manageable, somehow, compared to handling the life she lives with her husband.

As he descends into madness, he becomes frightening and unpredictable. He is tormented by the sound of ravens in his ears which will not stop, not even when he takes pills the hospital has given him to lighten his suffering. But his mental illness does not effect only himself, as no illness in a family can be contained within just one member. The entire family listens for unusual sounds which indicate what he may be up to. (Is he setting fire  to the house in the boiler room where he has chosen to sleep? No, he’s simply beating the rugs and furniture to rid it of bugs that only he can sense.)

One lives with a terrible fear when one lives with a person who is mentally ill. Not only is the health of the person at risk, normal everyday life becomes impaired. What one, little thing will disrupt the day and make everyone live on edge for the rest of the week?

Bannerhed does a brilliant job of portraying such a life. His writing is beautiful, and his description, if not lengthy beyond imagination, is quite picturesque.  But the utter hopelessness of this story, the way there was nothing that could redeem any of them, brought me to a despair I still feel this morning. Perhaps that is a mark of a talented writer; perhaps this piercing writing is why so many of my fellow Shadow Jury members gave this a perfect score.

But, I am not surprised it didn’t make the official IFFP short list. I could not bear the laborious reading which became bleaker at every page and offered only death as a way out.

Find other thoughts from fellow Shadow Jury members here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

20 thoughts on “The Ravens by Tomas Bannerhed (Or, How I Stand Apart From The Shadow Jury on This One)”

  1. I once lived around a person who wasn’t precisely mad, but who was given to becoming mad, in the form of violent, unpredictable episodes of explosive anger. You’re exactly right that “normal, everyday life becomes impaired.”

    It sounds as though Bannerhed did a superb job of portraying the realities. It’s also true that I never would pick this book up. It’s hard enough trying to keep my equilibrium in the face of the bread and circuses routine going on in Washington and the puerile idiocy on university campuses. I’m no Pollyanna, but I know how much I can take.


    1. I, too, lived around such a person. It was very difficult for him, I’m sure, but also for me to be around his moods. The unpredictable behavior, the drastic swings of emotion, were a struggle. Bannerhed does a superb job portraying that reality of which you and I speak. Perhaps that is why the book was so heavy for me. As for politics, don’t even get me started. (There’s currently a bill being considered in Illinois which would take away 30% of my pension. As if my career and effort were worth next to nothing.) xo


  2. Oh….this is not a book for me. There is enough real sadness in the world, I certainly do not want to add fictionalized misery. Swedish novels seem on the dark side, often.
    The cover tells the story within the book, for me anyway….
    Thank you Meredith for a great review 🙂


    1. There certainly is enough sadness in this world. This just tipped the edge over, and made my weekend so sad. It’s true about how Swedish novels seem to be on the dark side. Yet I could go further and say so many books for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize are on the sad side. I discussed this with my mother, who said that art mimics life. A good point, that so much sorrow in the world needs an outlet somewhere. We each carry such a burden in our hearts, I think.


  3. There is a fine line between reading an exquisitely written n book about a topic that is too difficult to contemplate. Do you continue to read because the writing is so good or do you give it up because it so incredibly depressing you cannot continue. A good discussion fore a book group I think.


    1. This would be a marvelous discussion for a book group; not only the book, but the question you pose here. I guess I was just mad mad mad that I spent my entire Saturday reading such a very depressing book. At the end, all I felt was sorrow and no redemptive hope for any of the characters. I suppose that is like life for many people, but I always look for something good. Even though I’ve suffered terrible sorrow, as well.


    1. The cover is one of the most perfectly fitting covers for a novel that I’ve seen. You can almost sense the inherent madness from the random droplets, like blood, and the scraggly writing. Not to mention the raven who can’t seem to fly.


  4. In some strange way this one appeals, not sure why maybe it’s something in my nature that enjoys what others may consider perverse, or I think more likely a wish to understand why things are like this.


    1. I am the only one, parrish lantern, who didn’t like this book. Several Shadow Jury members have given it a perfect score, and one said she wished it would take the prize. Well, it won’t do that because it didn’t make the short list. But, I just tell you that to say you might very well like it. Bannerhed certainly explores the anguish of mental illness, both on the person who suffers and those around him. He does a brilliant job, but it’s so very painful.


    1. Frances, how well you understand and how welcome your good wishes.

      I can’t stop thinking about this novel, and maybe that’s the mark of a good book.

      I fought with it, as literally as if I fought with my nails and my teeth. I hated it, I wept over it, I struggled through the author’s laborious journey with frustration and personal discomfort. But, maybe those are the marks of a good book, too.

      As I think about these things I’ve written in response to your comment, I realize I can’t just toss the book aside and forget about it.

      No. It is far too complex, and worth looking at, for that.


  5. I do sympathise. Being trapped in someone else’s suffering is horrible. There are one or two books to which I’ve had similar, quite visceral reactions, and I still remember them a great deal more clearly than most of the books I’ve loved.

    Have you read ‘The Garden of Evening Mists’? I’ve just finished it. It’s filled with darkness and horror, but beauty, love and a sort of redemption too.


  6. Being trapped in someone else’s suffering is horrible,me specially when it mirrors one’s own. This book brought back painful memories from my thirties in an all too vivid way.

    Plus, the description was overdone for me; I tend to adhere to the less is more philosophy.

    As for The Garden of Evening Mists, I haven’t read that one. But it makes complete sense that a book can be filled with darkness, and yet beauty/redemption, too. I like to be offered at least a thread of hope since that is what I look for in everything.


    1. Yes, I suppose I look to literature to give me something more, some shape or understanding or other possibilities. As some of your other readers have written, the news offers us enough raw misery and hopeless suffering.

      I have a novel about the massacres in Rwanda sitting on my bookshelf, it’s been there for more than 15 years I think. I’m afraid of what I’ll find in it. (This isn’t to denigrate The Ravens, it’s just my own attitude. I’d love to be able to ‘take’ powerful yet depressing writing, but it’s a struggle and I have to be in the right mental space. It seems as if that’s something we share, although you are braver than me and do actually read such books.)

      Best wishes with the end of term…


      1. I doubt I’m very brave. Caroline of Beauty of a Sleeping Cat hosts the War and Literature read-alongs, as I’m sure you know, and I couldn’t bear reading one of those (especially since my son became a Marine two years ago). I don’t want to “bury my head in the sand” and pretend atrocities don’t exist, but neither do I want to seek them out.

        I have begun Little, Big two nights ago, and I am utterly charmed. It is such a lovely, lovely book (no wonder it has so many accolades!) and I am certain we will have a great read together. xo


    1. I agree he captured both. But, very quickly on the madness disturbed me, and the description bored me, and overall, I did not like this book.

      Although, I often think of it even today, a week after I read it.


  7. It’s interesting that the book still stays with you. Although I have no personal experience, I did find the family’s attempts to cope with the father’s deterioration agonising at times – but then I also think people should know about such things.
    I haven’t often had such an experience as yours with books but I have with both film and theatre – usually when children are involved.


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