In this winner of the Swedish August Prize, an 11-year-old girl named Ellen believes that her prayers have caused her mentally ill father's death, an event she copes with by refusing to speak. Meanwhile her mother and brother are struggling in their own ways in the aftermath of the father's death.
Boström Knausgård’s careful exploration of mental illness is restrained and entirely unsentimental. She passes no judgment on her characters, whose pain she reveals through Ellen’s musings. Her prose is unobtrusive in its simplicity and minimalism. The result is both powerful and lyrical, qualities beautifully rendered by translator Martin Aitken’s concise, pared-down English text.
Sparse, sleek and exacting, Boström Knausgård's prose mimics the childlike view at the center of the novel, just as it allows Ellen a mature voice. There is an uncanniness to this perspective. It is both young and old, all-knowing and continuously limited, yearning and terrified ... Ellen provides a haunting and evocative portrait of the process of trauma and the awareness of personal isolationism, even within the structures of faith and family.
I liked living in the tomb of Ellen’s interiority, where ordinary household movements echo, questions linger and alter, and observations and hallucinations mingle ... Ellen, in Welcome to America, faces, curiously, no threat from the world: no moment that we know to wait for when the safe-yet-dangerous space of her mind will, due to some force from outside of herself, become too difficult to keep inside ... There is a power to this structure—a visceral sense of being submerged, with Ellen, at the bottom of a sea. But at the same time, I think that we readers lose out, by not being able to measure the depth of the sea, or the distance from shore, or to know what the culture is like back on land. It makes it hard to know how to take anything ... [events]...fail to pack the punch that they could. They repeat and crowd one another rather than echo or accumulate ... the reader does not feel the impact of the breakdown they are meant to represent. When novels don’t define the terms on which they want readers to take events, then we apply our own ideas about what any given turn in the story—a breakup, say, or a parent’s distraction—means, as well as how much it matters in our own 'real' world ... I wish that, rather than letting Ellen’s autonomy weaken the novel’s tension, making it so that no reality interrupts her inner work, Boström Knausgård had instead treated her protagonist’s autonomy as a source of tension and as a particular crucible forming her, as she comes of age.