Toxic by Helga Flatland tr. Matt Bagguley #Toxic #bookreview

When Mathilde is forced to leave her teaching job in Oslo after her relationship with eighteen-year-old Jacob is exposed, she flees to the countryside for a more authentic life.
Her new home is a quiet cottage on the outskirts of a dairy farm run by Andres and Johs, whose hobbies include playing the fiddle and telling folktales – many of them about female rebellion and disobedience, and seeking justice, whatever it takes.
But beneath the surface of the apparently friendly and peaceful pastoral surface of the farm, something darker and less harmonic starts to vibrate, and with Mathilde’s arrival, cracks start appearing … everywhere.

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Hi and welcome to my review of Toxic!

I am well and truly at a loss for words, with no clue whatsoever how to review this one.

Let me start by saying that I read very little contemporary fiction but I’ll always make an exception for Helga Flatland. There is just something about her writing style and her stories that draws me in, even if I never can put my finger on the exact reason(s) why. 

Toxic was more than a book, it was an experience. On the surface, there is Mathilde’s story and Johs’s story. These two protagonists whose POVs alternate throughout the novel couldn’t possibly be more different. Mathilde’s a city girl who never would have ended up renting a house in the countryside if not for covid and a ruined reputation, while the countryside is pretty much all Johs has ever known. All Mathilde really has is a small apartment in Oslo, her mum and her mum’s cat, while Johs is very much the product of his family, his family’s farm and his village.

Underneath all that, there is a toxic current running through literally everything. At one point I was asking myself what the title meant, what or who it referred to. By the end, I had decided it referred to absolutely everyone and everything. For me, at least. But maybe you will determine it means something else. Maybe you’ll read Toxic and read something else entirely. Maybe you will like Mathilde, or dislike her, think that she’s a victim, or the toxic one, not everything at once, like I did.

Toxic ends very abruptly, which is the Helga Flatland way. I saw the final page getting closer and I kept thinking: no, not yet, this can’t be over yet! But it was and it only made me think even more about what I’d just read. That rather open ending won’t be everyone, nor will this book work for every reader. But I, for one, had a great time with it. It doesn’t happen often that the rare contemporary fiction I read gets my mind whirring but Helga Flatland manages every time.

Special thanks to Matt Bagguley, a new-to-me translator who gets Helga Flatland’s voice across in what feels like a very natural and effortless way.

Toxic is a quiet, multilayered story that got under my skin. I had a great time with it and I would happily recommend it to fans of Nordic contemporary fiction.

Toxic is out on 23 May in digital formats and paperback. Pre-order it directly from Orenda Books here.

Massive thanks to Orenda Books for the digital review copy. All opinions are my own.

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