In Bostrom Knausgaard's first novel offers a modern spin on the myth of Athena, plunging the reader deep inside the mind of an unlikely twelve-year-old goddess confined to a small Swedish town and eventually institutionalized.
The emotional intensity created by Boström Knausgaard—who has previously published stories and a collection of poems—recalls Sylvia Plath, but her spare, accelerating modern myth owes something to the poet/classicist Anne Carson's novels in verse ... Some readers will be put off by the combination of lyricism and distress but I love the way Boström Knausgaard invests 'Dad'— one of the key words of our lives—with fresh power. In Anna's mouth, this simple, multitudinous word reminds me of Flaubert ... there's levity ... Nevertheless, the violence—of language, blood, mania – assaults the reader as Anna plumbs the depths of a condition which sounds similar to bipolar disorder. This novella cannot be read quickly, its psychological range and febrile prose demand attentiveness. It takes skill and imagination to describe extreme emotions in ways to which everybody can relate but that's what Boström Knausgaard achieves in this short, piercing book.
What's remarkable about The Helios Disaster is how lucid Anna's voice and account is. Despite being lost in a haze, despite barely being able to communicate with those around her—often she is unable or unwilling to talk; later she is barely capable of doing so because of the medications she's given—she expresses herself clearly, observing rationally even as she often remains uncomprehending. Those around her rarely can get through to her, and she can rarely explain herself, yet she conveys both others and herself in clear and precise terms—if also often childishly (or mentally unstably) unable to make connections. Everything may be a fog, yet it's also razor-sharply delineated ... an unusual novel of mental instability and of childhood, presented in a striking voice. Boström Knausgård handles mental illness well, putting the reader in Anna's lucid but damaged mind, and while much of the novel can seem abrupt, the impressive, compact narrative does more than enough.
Solitude is in this novel purely a torment, the painful consequence of Anna’s separation from her father, whom she imagines to be the one person who understands her true nature. Ms. Boström Knausgård is good at evoking the fragility that can afflict even the most loving families. Her sentences, translated from the Swedish by Rachel Willson-Broyles, are short, dry and brittle, like tinder on the verge of combustion. The writing then takes fire in the desperate and disturbing portrait of mental illness ... The mythology, on the other hand, is vague and confusing. I wasted far too much time trying to figure out what Athena has to do with any of this—the answer seems to be very little. Ersatz allusions to antiquity litter the narrative, interrupting a powerful story in the most needless way: by goading the reader to stop to look things up on Wikipedia.