#RivetingReviews: Darcy Hurford reviews ÆDNAN. AN EPIC by Linnea Axelsson

The more life speeds up, the more poetry feels like an antidote; the act of reading forces you to slow down, focus, absorb the words and process the ideas. Ædnan is a novel written in verse, and Linnea Axelsson’s decision to render it in verse enhances the reading experience, making the story of two Sámi families across a century all the more vivid. 

Axelsson is a writer and art historian from northern Sweden, who had previously published two novels in Swedish before winning the country’s top literary accolade, the August Prize, with Ædnan in 2018. The past few years have seen increased awareness of Sámi issues in Sweden, Norway and Finland, as well as greater acknowledgement of the colonialisation experienced by Sámi people, the original inhabitants of the northernmost regions. The same period has also seen translations of several Sámi authors, such as Elin Anna Labba, Moa Backe Åstot, Tina Harnesk and Ann-Helén Laestadius, into English. Axelsson’s epic is a welcome addition to this growing body of literature.

First the title: ‘ædnan’ is an old North Sámi word which means ‘the country’, ‘the land’ and the earth’, while sounding similar to the words for ‘river’ and ‘mother’. It’s a title loaded with significance, and one that suits the narrative. This is a story about the land as much as the people in it, told through snapshots of their daily lives as seen by the individuals. It starts in 1913, with Risten, Ber-Joná and their sons Aslat and Nila leading a traditional lifestyle herding reindeer. The book by no means offers a romanticised view of Sámi life – physically tough and carrying the risk of serious accidents – but it does clearly reflect a way of living in harmony with nature, particularly with reindeer. ‘To be without / the reindeer’s gaze / was impossible’, says Ber-Joná. 

Axelsson’s narrative also evokes a landscape navigated by song – ‘Ski stroke by ski stroke / song after song’. This is a landscape seldom described in English-language literature, which must have made the translation demanding. How many of us have eaten a ‘cloudberry’, let alone stood in a ‘cloudberry mire’ picking them, or seen ‘rangeland’, ‘scarp’, someone wearing a ‘kolt’ or encountered ‘coffee cheese’? Credit to translator Saskia Vogel for making this world accessible.

The Swedish authorities appear in 1920 in the form of travelling doctors, full of scientific racism and a wish to categorise the Sámi as inferior. By 1945 the family have been driven out of the areas they used to call home and are living in a peat cottage in Porjus, a place dominated by a newly built dam. Like the reindeer earlier in the book, the dam, and the company that runs it, the state-owned energy firm Vattenfall, emerge as characters in their own right, so much do they dominate the landscape. 

A new generation grows up in a different reality, and most of the book focuses on these later generations. In the second section, headed ‘Ædno’ (‘river’), Lise lives in the flat that Risten and Nila used to live in. Sent to a ‘nomad school’ far from home, she loses her language and much cultural knowledge, yet doesn’t quite turn into a Swede: it’s clear that there is a long-lasting traumatic impact. At the same time, Axelsson makes the point that Sámi culture never stopped existing; for example, in 1977, Lise still says she can tell who comes from Karesuando, one of the villages from which Sámi people were dislocated in the 1920s, by the caps their grandchildren and great-grandchildren wear. ‘Their caps aren’t like ours’, she notes simply.

In the third section, ‘Ædni’ (‘mother’), the next generation – represented by Lise’s daughter Sandra – start to reclaim their identity. There are court cases, language classes and efforts to regain traditional craft skills and clothing. There is anger, but also courage and a self-confidence that suggests optimism for the future. In 2016, Sandra chooses to wear a kolt, the traditional Sámi costume, during discussions and meetings with the Swedish authorities. It’s a statement of identity:

‘An of-woman-sewn
armor of broadcloth
and silver
It calls upon them
to regard me
when I speak
on my children’s behalf.’

The last lines of Ædnan are given to an outsider, a priest who, we’re told, had followed the family quite closely for while, but didn’t know them well. She watches them leaving after a funeral, ‘And she wonder[s] / who they were’. The Sámi people may not be well known within or without Sweden, but Ædnan shows who they might be.

Reviewed by Darcy Hurford

ÆDNAN. AN EPIC

Written by Linnea Axelsson

Translated by Saskia Vogel

Published by Pushkin Press (2024)

June 2024 #RivetingReviews titles are available to buy from bookshop.org.


Darcy Hurford is a translator from Estonian, Finnish, German and Swedish. Originally from England, she is now based in Belgium.


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