‘Sunflowers’ by Cecilia Davidssons, translated by Henning Koch

‘Sunflowers’, a Swedish story, focusses on a mother’s illness. Told from a child’s point of view, every aspect of sunflowers is essential to the narrative structure of the story, in as much as they are symbolic of what is happening in a family’s life as they try to cope with the mother’s deteriorating health. The father plants thousands of sunflowers in the field opposite the house and when they are in full bloom they look “like an army of mute individuals”, and are “so high” that even passers-by from the village, as the narrator tells her mother, “are talking about them”. Sunflowers are a delight for the senses – both the taste and sight, as the narrator’s father points out: “In the right quantity it’s a superb herb,… sweet and salty in just the right combination.” Throughout there are allusions to the life-giving force of sunflowers. In the hope that that will revitalise her mother the narrator cuts three of them for her to see, “so that she’d get a sense of how it must look down by the lake. Like in a fairy tale or a painting by Van Gogh. More beautiful than Van Gogh.” But her mother protests, as if to say she has accepted her illness and her life can’t be prolonged by anything and says, “Sunflowers don’t want to be put in a vase”, suggesting that her spirit can’t be contained. Out in the fields, in a vase, and also a bunch, or “their stalks wrapped in wet kitchen roll”, the author provides visuals of sunflowers at their best – in art, photographs, alive in the sunshine at noon and drooping in the afternoon heat. The end of the story brings an unexpected twist, but the lasting image is that of a glowing sunflower field, set in the wider landscape of things, with “mute life under the surface…”

First published in Swedish in Höga berg, djupa dalar (High Mountains, Deep Valleys), 2015. Available to read on Thresholds here

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