“The Arctic had a way of reminding you that your life was unimportant, expendable, and easily extinguished,” writes Nathaniel Ian Miller in his stellar first novel. He knows this harsh environment all too well, having lived there as part of the annual Arctic Circle artist and scientist expeditionary program. During his residency, he happened upon a century-old hut where a hermit once lived on an otherwise uninhabited fjord. Although biographical details of the man are sparse, the discovery inspired Miller to write a fictional account of his life. The result, The Memoirs of Stockholm Sven, seems so authentic in both detail and slightly archaic narrative voice that it’s easy to forget it’s not an actual memoir.
Growing up in Stockholm, Sven Ormson is determined to escape an unhappy life of “menial drudgery.” He dreams of polar exploration and reads not only famous, heroic accounts but also all of the “terminally dull voyage narratives” he can get his hands on. At age 32, he sets out for Spitsbergen, a Norwegian archipelagic isle in the Arctic Circle, where he begins working in a dangerous, soul-sucking mine. Before long, a horrific accident leaves him not only disfigured but also “resolved to spend [his] life alone” as an Arctic trapper. And he’s hardly a gifted trapper.
Thus begins a truly walloping tale of solitude and survival told in visceral detail, a combination of Miller’s wild imagination and his beautifully precise prose. By design, the novel is so full of lengthy descriptions that a certain amount of perseverance is required of the reader. But Sven is an insightful yet comically ironic narrator, and there is often great excitement in his story, including “ice bear” attacks, near starvation, northern lights and the haunting sounds of calving glaciers.
The arctic landscape is mostly barren, but Sven encounters a parade of quirky yet meaningful characters who appear, disappear and sometimes reappear in his life. He also offers a surprising amount of social commentary, touching on corporate greed, the plight of workers, the tragedy and senselessness of war, the rewards of canine-human relationships, the necessity of intellectual pursuits and more.
Although The Memoirs of Stockholm Sven is a vastly different book from Peter Heller’s The Guide, these two novels may appeal to the same audience: readers who love exquisite nature writing and crave no-holds-barred, extreme outdoor adventures. Miller goes one step further, however, by imbuing his novel with an unforgettable narrator who asks essential questions of human connection, a remarkable achievement for a novel ostensibly about solitude. What makes a family? What makes a devoted friend? What makes a great life?
Like the arctic landscape itself, The Memoirs of Stockholm Sven is beautifully stark and unimaginably rich, a book that will long be remembered by its lucky readers.