Hedda Gullberg is incredibly clever and strong in the face of all odds. There could be no more fitting title for this extraordinary novel, as its main character is both trapped and deluded by people and life events. In the first chapter, we get a snapshot of Hedda at the end of her life in 1936. The tale truly begins in 1878 when she is a young girl, the daughter of a miller in Scania (in southern Sweden). After she gets wind of the fact that her father and sister are scheming to marry her off to the imbecile brother of her sister’s fiancé, we realize her independent spirit. No way will Hedda go for that arrangement!
After misfortune befalls her father and sister, Hedda gets her chance to move away. When she arrives in Silkeborg, Denmark at a luxurious spa, she at first enjoys the acquaintance of Conrad Walther and his mother. There she falls prey to the ‘snares’—the traps—of the world in which they inhabit. Hedda is then rescued from this particular trap and released in hopes of becoming a free woman of independent means. Despite her relentless toil, she winds up in a poorhouse. But from there, she will again be rescued. However, becoming Mrs. Walther’s companion proves to be another snare for Hedda, as well as her marriage to the woman’s son once Hedda discovers the reason the marriage cannot be consummated.
This brief synopsis of the initial plot does little justice to HM Holten’s rich storytelling. Her initial use of the famous Shakespeare quote: “We are such stuff as dreams are made” is a better tip-off to this rich, dramatic, and often dreamlike narrative. While the story is told through third- person point of view, readers are bearing witness to a life review of a woman who has known more troubled times than tender ones. Still, there are enough of the better dreams for Hedda to remain curious—not about what life has in store for her, so much as how she will actively respond to circumstances.
The many obstacles she surmounts make Hedda increasingly stronger and more capable. Holten’s description of her giving birth to her daughter in “a small pool sheltered by towering silver-birches,” is amazing! There’s a fairytale magic to it. I’d even say it’s transcendent, but it also perfectly exemplifies Hedda’s inner strength, courage, and compassion. The crone who assists Hedda asks her what she’s afraid of and her response is: “Not much – not anymore.” Referring to her newborn, Hedda adds: “But I’d kill—I’d do anything for her.” I had little problem believing that she would.
Hedda and her daughter, Ellie, travel to Copenhagen. It’s there they take up residence in a large home given to Hedda by Ellie’s father. She turns the large house into a rooming house. At last, she can truly become a woman of independent means. While she has found it difficult to forgive others given her early circumstances, Hedda is now both caring and capable of finding room in her life for others—even Frode (one of her boarders who fall deeply in love with her). Is there room and openness in her heart to still fall in love again as she did as a girl?
Snares and Delusions is ultimately a tale about an incredible woman—a survivor like no other. How apt the author’s quote by Milton, placed before Part Three of this incredible tome: “Life’s a voyage that’s homeward bound.” I can’t wait to read the next one in this remarkable trilogy!