The best way to get under a country’s skin (apart from visiting) is to read some of its stories. And Sweden, with a population of less than 10 million, has more tales to tell than you might expect. Here’s a round-up of the best Swedish books, from world-famous novels to lesser-known tomes that still pack a big literary punch. This list also includes some of the best non-fiction books about Sweden, plus a few travel guidebooks.
Per Anders Fogelström
The five books that make up Per Anders Fogelström’s Stockholm Series chart the lives of Stockholmers between 1860 and 1968. In that time, the city went through immense changes and Fogelström’s novels examine the very personal effect that key events – like the introduction of the welfare system – had on the lives of everyday folk. The first four books are currently available in English.
First published in 1940, Kallocain remains one of the best Swedish novels of all time. It warns of a dystopian future in which a drug – named after the book’s protagonist Leo Kall – makes secrets a thing of the past. Anyone injected with Kallocain will reveal his or her innermost thoughts, ensuring that the state can maintain its iron grip on society. Like George Orwell’s 1984, which was published almost a decade later, this is frightening stuff.
Set in a tough period of Swedish history, Moberg’s four novels in the Emigrants series follow a group of Swedes as they set sail for a new life on the other side of the Atlantic. The characters’ journey – spurred on by crop failures and hard times in Sweden – marks the beginning of a period of mass Swedish emigration to America.
The Swedish crime fiction genre has roots going back decades, but it took until the release of Stieg Larsson’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo for the world to sit up and notice. Fast-paced and intriguing, it’s a landmark page-turner that sheds light on dark corners of Swedish society that are rarely spoken about. Thinking of seeing the film? The Swedish version (available with English subtitles) is way better.
Doctor Glas caused huge controversy when it was released in the early 1900s. The book tells the tale of a 19th-Century doctor who falls in love with a married patient and then faces a tough decision – to kill or not to kill – when the patient’s husband refuses to give her up.
One of the brightest Swedish crime fiction writers to hit the big time since Stieg Larsson’s worldwide success, Camilla Läckberg juxtaposes idyllic settings with brutal murders. In Läckberg’s debut The Ice Princess, which unfolds in the sleepy west coast fishing village of Fjällbacka, an apparent suicide sparks an investigation that reveals some uncomfortable truths.
Sweden and its Scandinavian neighbours have the good life perfected. Don’t they? If you’ve ever read the travel and lifestyle pages of newspapers in the UK and USA, you’d be forgiven for thinking so. But as journalist Michael Booth argues in this honest travelogue-style book, the Nordic way of life isn’t quite as flawless as we’ve been led to believe. Worth buying before you visit – and essential if you’ve ever dreamt of moving to Scandinavia full-time.
More than a century ago, three men set off on a hare-brained expedition to the North Pole – by air balloon. Decades later, their frozen bodies were discovered on a remote glacier, along with plenty of food supplies and warm clothing. This book by the artist and doctor Bea Uusma sets out to discover what really happened to those men.
Frederick M Hocker
If you’ve visited the excellent Vasa Museum in Stockholm and want to learn more about the ill-fated warship of the same name, this richly illustrated book is worth a look. It outlines the boat’s historical context and then describes the immense effort restoration workers made to bring the ship back to the surface after centuries underwater.
If you’re looking for a good old-fashioned country guide, the Rough Guide to Sweden is probably the best one going, with detailed sections on the country’s history and culture. The latest full-colour version has better maps than previous editions. (Full disclosure: I’ve worked on lots of Rough Guides titles in other countries, but don’t have anything to do with the Sweden book.)
Bradt’s West Sweden guide, which is published in conjunction with the local tourist board, covers Gothenburg and the surrounding stretches of granite-strewn coastline. It’s very thin and uniformly positive, but has some good tips for uncovering the region’s beauty spots.
As the name suggests, this is not a traditional guidebook full of reviews and recommendations. Instead, Uncommon Stockholm takes a sideways look at the city, using stories told by local people to reveal hidden corners and unusual diversions. Some of the tales ramble a little, but the book itself is beautifully designed.