THE SECRETS OF CRICKET KARLSSON
By Kristina Sigunsdotter
Illustrated by Ester Eriksson
Translated by Julia Marshall
I didn’t think a place as utopian as Sweden—with universal health care, five weeks of paid vacation, 480 days of parental leave—could have a problem as banal as mean girls. But after a few pages in Kristina Sigunsdotter’s charming, funny, deceptively deep middle-class novel, “The Secrets of Cricket Karlsson,” it becomes clear that queen bees are a global phenomenon.
Of course, since this is Sweden, the cruelty is mild. The cool girls are “horse girls” galloping neighing and neighing across the schoolyard, behavior that in America, I can report firsthand, rarely qualifies as anything remotely cool. The horse girls whisper about Cricket, screech at her chickenpox scabs and, after finding out she spends her breaks in the bathroom, christens her Crapula. The sting hurts all the more because the horse girls stole her best friend Noa.
“I am 11 years old and my life is a CATASTROPHE,” Cricket reports on the opening pages of Sigunsdotter’s diary-form book, the entries illustrated with beautifully evocative drawings by Ester Eriksson. “I got HUNDRED THREE chicken pox and had to stay home from school for TWO weeks. When I got back, my best friend Noa had run off with the horse girls. Now she acts like I don’t exist. I hate school and I hate my life.”
This is not all that plagues Cricket. There’s her mom, who constantly sighs and makes recipes from “Roots & Nuts: Cooking Like a Stone Ager.” A boy named Mitten continues to give Cricket gifts in the hopes that she will go out with him. After throwing a glass of wine against the wall at a family dinner, her beloved, eccentric Aunt Frannie ends up in Psychiatric Ward 84 for adults for what appears to be depression. Cricket herself struggles with anxiety-induced insomnia, which Aunt Frannie calls “the hour of the wolf.” But it’s Noa’s loss that breaks Cricket’s heart and gives strength to this backup novel, winner of Sweden’s prestigious August Prize.
“I’ve never been in love, or maybe even with Noa,” Cricket writes. In a drawing titled “Diagram of My Catastrophic Life,” Cricket traces a steady line from her birth to meeting Noa, then a low point after she contracted the chickenpox and Noa “left” her. It’s no coincidence that she sounds like a rejected lover. There is a particular intensity to young female friendships that is rarely depicted in literature (Elena Ferrante notwithstanding), let alone children’s literature. But Sigunsdotter’s honest voice and Eriksson’s refined and generously distributed art come together to honor the passion of these friendships and the pain associated with their dissolution.
Perhaps because this is Sweden, soft resolutions are achieved with minimal drama. Cricket and Noa reconcile and the horse girls are put in their place. Mitten falls in love with Cricket. The problem of Cricket’s mother’s sigh has been solved. Aunt Frannie leaves the hospital and refuses to open the door or eat, but her depression is soon relieved by a moonlit ride on a horse named Sheriff (an image that evokes another heroine of Swedish children’s literature and her trusty steed). The ease and innocence of it all was almost shocking to me, as I am used to the high drama and boisterous climaxes of American novels. But maybe it’s okay for things to be solved easily. Maybe that’s how things work in a utopia.