Swedish author Johanne Lykke Holm on her new novel 'Strega'
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
"Strega," the new novel by Johanne Lykke Holm begins with a scene that almost slaps you in the face. It's in a bedroom. The bed sheets are stained with milk and blood. There're hair pins, sleeping pills and undergarments around. Rafaela, the 19-year-old year old narrator, says, I knew a woman's life could at any point be turned into a crime scene. The crime scene was not the bed, but the body. The crime had already taken place. Book tells the story of Rafaela, a young woman who eventually goes to work in a resort hotel where no guests seem to visit. "Strega" is translated from the Swedish by Saskia Vogel. And Johanne Lykke Holm joins us now.
Thanks so much for being with us.
JOHANNE LYKKE HOLM: Thank you for having me.
SIMON: Tell us about this resort hotel, which, after finishing the book, I am reluctant to call a hotel...
SIMON: ...In which nine teenage women come to work.
HOLM: Yes. The hotel is called the Olympic, and it's located in these fictitious Italian mountains. I would describe it as eerie. And it is run by three older women. By older - the narrator, Rafa, would refer to people over 25. These nine girls - they work every day just taking care of the hotel. They make the beds. They clean the rooms. They make food and so on. But no one ever shows up.
HOLM: And close by, there is a community of nuns who also have this kind of - lived this kind of life where every day resembles the next - and this repetition, this, like, almost theater-like reproduction that they play out the same day again and again until one day one of them goes missing.
SIMON: This is Cassie.
HOLM: This is Cassie, yes.
SIMON: And we'll get to her story. I found myself asking pretty early on in the novel, why would their families want their daughters to work at a place like the Olympic Hotel?
HOLM: I think to understand that there is this chapter in the novel where it is described how the parents have this idea that the girls should be prepared for a life where they will take care of their husband, their children, and be what you would call good women. But the thing is, that woman, of course, doesn't exist anymore. Or maybe she has never existed. I think the hotel is this weird prison where all the doors are open. They could just leave whenever, but they don't. And why don't they just leave?
HOLM: I think that's the main question of the book.
SIMON: What gets set off when Cassie goes missing, one of the young women? What does it set off in Rafa and others?
HOLM: I actually think that what happens is that they just keep reenacting this weird performance or play that they are in. They are kind of playing a game. They don't react in a - what you would call a really, like, loving and normal way. They do not call her parents right away. They don't call the police. They don't seem to be that distraught.
HOLM: In some of the scenes, they are almost excited, I would say, like it's all a film.
SIMON: Well, I mean, it's - forgive me - it's diversion.
SIMON: You know, it's something different...
SIMON: ...To break up their time.
HOLM: Exactly. Many readers have told me that they see "Strega" as this feminist saga, almost, about female friendship. And in some way, they read it like this kind of utopia. To me, it's more about how these girls are complicit with the violence and the horrors of the world and how they are actually not rebellious.
SIMON: Yeah. Complicit in violence committed against women is...
HOLM: Exactly. Yeah.
SIMON: The narrator says women are born into a world in which many crimes will be committed against them.
SIMON: Yeah. "Strega" means witch...
SIMON: ...In Italian, right?
SIMON: And that's not an accident, is it?
HOLM: No, it isn't. To me, strega is this really emblematic word.
HOLM: It is not just the meaning witch. It is also how it looks. It is also this funny, I would call it, connection with an Italian liqueur called Strega, this really yellow...
HOLM: ...Herbal alcoholic drink. But to me, the word strega holds information about hidden knowledge, hidden practices, maybe the things women have been doing in secret. And I think that is an aspect of human history - this sounds really bombastic, but - that I've tried to tap into.
SIMON: That women have been special victims of...
HOLM: Yes, but also that I mean in the word witch. The word witch is both this accusation and also this really honorable thing to be. It is both the aggression and the power, if that makes sense. It is both what you are called by the witch hunters and what you are as a woman in a community with special practices in regarding nature and all sorts of things. And I think that is the magic of the word strega, that it has both these dimensions.
SIMON: You know, I am a cisgendered man who has read the novel and liked it. I'm wondering if there's something specific you would like readers who are not women to absorb.
HOLM: I think the book tries to unveil this hidden secret, which is not a secret to girls and women. I think the quotes in the beginning with every woman's life turning into a crime scene, that the crime has already taken place - I think that is where the novel just spells it out. That is what the novel is trying to show the reader. And if the reader is a girl or a woman, she might recognize this hidden secret from inside herself or inside themselves. And as a cisgender man, I think the novel holds this opportunity to hear something that's usually just spoken about when you're not present.
SIMON: Johanne Lykke Holm. Her novel, "Strega."
Thanks so much for being with us.
HOLM: Thank you for having me.
(SOUNDBITE OF MF DOOM'S "SARSAPARILLA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.