Cover image for April Witch : a novel
April Witch : a novel
Axelsson, Majgull, 1947-
Personal Author:
Uniform Title:
Aprilhäxan. English
First U.S. edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Villard Books, [2002]

Physical Description:
408 pages ; 25 cm
Format :


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X Adult Fiction Open Shelf
X Adult Fiction Central Library
X Adult Fiction Open Shelf
X Adult Fiction Open Shelf

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"No excuses will do anymore. Time to put my sisters in motion." Desirée lies in a hospital bed thinking, dreaming. One of the children born severely disabled in 1950s Sweden and then routinely institutionalized for life--and one of a very few to survive nearly to the century's end--she cannot walk or talk, but she has other capabilities. Desirée is an April witch, clairvoyant and omniscient, leaving her own body and traveling into the world denied her. The working-class woman who gave Desirée up at birth took in three foster daughters several years later, and even as adults they know nothing of the existence of their fourth "sister." Christina, abused by her psychotic birth mother and burdened by a sense of inferiority, is now a physician; Margareta, the onetime foundling, an astrophysicist who can never manage to complete her dissertation, is as restless and sensual as she was in her youth; and Birgitta, in her day the fastest, sexiest teen queen in town, is now a derelict alcoholic and substance abuser. In spite of her physical disabilities, Desirée possesses tremendous intelligence, and she observes the world around her with great acumen. She has developed a very special relationship with her primary care physician, Dr. Hubertsson, who realizes that she could and should know something about her own background. Unbeknownst to him, she goes on to make supernatural use of this information. Sensing that her own time is drawing to a close, Desirée also feels that one of the others has lived the life that should have been hers. One day, each of the three women--Christina, Margareta, Birgitta --receives a mysterious letter that inspires her to examine her past and her present, setting into motion a complex fugue of memory, regret, and confrontation that builds to a shattering climax. April Witchcreated a furor upon its original publication in Sweden, where it was an immense bestseller. Addressing themes of mother-daughter relationships, competition between women, and the failures of Sweden's postwar welfare state, it is foremost a thrillingly written and fascinating story.

Author Notes

Majgull Axelsson is married, has two children, and lives in Stockholm.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Desiree was born severely disabled, abandoned to Sweden's welfare system in the 1950s and institutionalized for most of her life. Although her body is incapable of controlled movement, Desiree's mind is sharp, and she discovers she can travel space and time, exploring the outside world through the eyes of animals and other people. Lying in her hospital bed, Desiree dreams of the life she should have had, the one she believes she deserved and that her three foster sisters had in her place. With her health deteriorating quickly, Desiree sets in motion a plan to acquire the life of one of her sisters--Christina, a doctor haunted by the abuse afflicted by her mentally unstable birth mother; Margareta, a physicist orphaned at birth and still restless and overwhelmed by feelings of abandonment; and Brigitta, the former reigning town beauty but now a miserable drunk. With compassion and honesty, Axelsson examines the power of memory, the pain of regret, the need to belong, and the disappointment inherent in longing for a life that is not one's own. --Carolyn Kubisz

Publisher's Weekly Review

Desiree (meaning "desired one") Johansson is the ironically named daughter of Ella Johansson ironic because Ella abandoned her at birth. In the Swedish welfare state of the 1950s, Desiree's birth defects (cerebral palsy, epilepsy and physical deformation) meant a life in institutions. Now nearing 50, she is increasingly wracked by pain and seizures, and the only person she ever loved, her doctor, Hubertsson, is dying. But she is an April witch a weak body with a strong mind and when Hubertsson informs her of her mother's later foster children, she employs her paranormal powers of omniscience to learn about Ella, her "betrayer," and her three foster sisters, the "thieves" of the life that should have been hers. Though unable to walk or speak, Desiree follows their movements, and it is their stories that make up the bulk of this suspenseful, insightful novel. Margareta had been abandoned, while Christina and Birgitta's real mothers were abusive, and appeared irregularly in their childhoods with terrible results. The girls were separated as teens after Ella's stroke, for which difficult Birgitta is blamed: Christina and Margareta believe Ella discovered that Birgitta was the town slut, and that it nearly killed her. While Margareta has become a physicist and Christina a doctor, and Birgitta has evolved through drug addiction to alcoholism, none of them know about their other sister yet. Journalist Axelsson caused quite a stir with this novel in her native Sweden, ripping into Scandinavian conformity like a latter day Ibsen, while Americans might see some resemblance to the spirit of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Readers who made Peter Hoeg a bestseller should certainly find a place in their hearts for Axelsson. (Apr.) Forecast: Originally published in Sweden in 1997, this was a runaway bestseller and a winner of the August Prize (it's sold over 350,000 copies to date). Both Barnes and Noble and Borders are giving it special attention, and news from the independents suggests it will be a great handsell. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

The ties that bind family members to one another are always fraught with emotional baggage, and Swedish writer Axelsson's engrossing and honest second novel (the first was the award-winning Far from Nifelheim) portrays the conflicts that arise from jealousy, resentment, and physical and class differences. The story centers on four women. Desiree has cerebral palsy and suffers from near-constant seizures. Routinely institutionalized at birth along with scores of others born in 1950s Sweden, she has never met her family of origin. Christina, Margareta, and Birgitta are the foster children taken in by Ella, Desiree's birth mother. Now middle-aged, they are evaluating their choices and wondering how to make the most of their lives. Options, of course, are finite, but with a little prodding from supernatural forces namely, the April Witch personal worlds blow open. In less able hands, such a novel would seem hokey and contrived, but Axelsson's prose is taut and her dialog unpredictable. Winner of Sweden's prestigious August Prize, this book is moving, suspenseful, and intense. Highly recommended. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 12/01.] Eleanor J. Bader, Brooklyn, NY (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Waves and Particles Neutrinos they are very small They have no charge and have no mass And do not interact at all The earth is just a silly ball To them, through which they simply pass Like dust maids down a drafty hall Or photons through a sheet of glass . . . -John Updike "Who's out there?" asks my sister. She's more perceptive than the others, the only one who ever senses my presence. She looks like a bird right now, standing there craning her neck, staring out across the backyard. She's wearing nothing but a gray bathrobe over her white nightgown, and doesn't seem to notice last night's frost hanging in the air. Her robe is open, the belt untied, dangling from one single loop. Like a slender tail feather, it trails behind her down the steps from the kitchen. She swivels her head sharply, listening in the direction of the yard, awaiting a response. When none is forthcoming, she repeats her question, now in a shriller, more anxious tone of voice: "Who's out there?" Her breath forms small white plumes, very becoming to her ethereal type. Like mist, I thought the very first time I ever saw her. It was a hot August day many summers ago, long before I had moved into assisted accommodation. A medical conference was about to begin in the auditorium of the nursing home, and Hubertsson had gotten them to roll my wheelchair out and park me in the shade of the big maple tree. He orchestrated a coincidence in which he bumped into Christina Wulf in the parking lot and got her to walk across the big lawn where I was sitting. The heels of her pumps went right through the soft grass, and when she reached the graveled yard she stopped for a moment to make sure there was no dirt stuck under her shoes. That was when I noticed she was wearing panty hose, despite the heat. A neat blouse, a calf-length skirt, and panty hose. All in shades of white and gray. "Your elder sister is one of those ladies who washes her hands in chlorine bleach," Hubertsson had said before showing her to me. On the surface, that was a good description. But not completely adequate. Now that I could see her in the flesh, she seemed to me so ambiguous in both shape and color that the laws of physical matter failed to apply to her. She should be able to seep like smoke through closed windows and locked doors. For one instant as he reached out to support her, I thought Hubertsson's hand was going to pass straight through her arm. Which wouldn't have been so strange, really. We often forget that what we consider laws of nature are actually nothing but our ignorant ideas about a highly complex reality. For instance, the fact that we are living in a cloud of particles with no substance: photons and neutrinos. Or the fact that all matter--even that of which the human body is composed--is primarily emptiness, a vacuum. The distance between the particles in the atoms is just as great as the distance between a star and its planets. What gives rise to surface and solidity is not the particles themselves, in other words, but the electromagnetic field that binds them. Quantum phys- ics also teaches us that the very smallest elements of matter are not just particles. They are also waves. Simultaneously. For the duration of a microsecond the electron tries out its potential positions, and for that instant all its possibilities are equally real. So everything is in flux. As we know. Seen in light of this there is nothing particularly peculiar about the fact that some of us are able to violate the laws of physics. But when Hubertsson's hand reached Christina as she stood there on one foot examining the sole of her shoe, she turned out to have contours just as solid as those of any other human being. His hand grasped her arm and remained there. She hasn't become less transparent over the years; she still looks like she might dissolve at any moment and drift away in a jumble of waves and particles. But, of course, this is simply an illusion. Christina is actually a solidly coherent lump of human matter. Extraordinarily coherent, even. And now her electrons have decided to change position. She blinks and forgets me, tightens her bathrobe around her body, and walks, her rubber boots squelching, along the slushy gravel path in the direction of the mailbox and the morning papers. The letter is at the bottom of the mailbox. When she catches sight of it a tiny wave of horror wafts like a breeze through the yard. Astrid, she thinks, just as she remembers that Astrid is dead, that she has, in fact, been dead for three years. That is some comfort. She stuffs the papers under her arm and starts toward the house, all the time twisting and turning the envelope. She's not watching her step. That's why she trips over the dead seagull. At that very instant my second sister opens her eyes in a hotel room in Göteborg, gulping for air. That's how she always wakes up; for one instant she is terrified, before she remembers who she is and where. When her morning panic subsides, she starts to fall back to sleep, then halts herself and stretches toward the ceiling. Jesus! She doesn't have time to lie around! This is the day she is going to spend a perfectly ordinary Thursday retracing her own footsteps. A walk down memory lane. She's been that way before, but not for a long time. Margareta sits up in bed, fumbles for a smoke. The first puff gives her the shivers, she feels as if her skin rises and hovers a fraction of an inch above her flesh. She looks down at her arms. They are naked, pale and goose-bumped. She forgot her only nightgown at Claes's place . . . For a confirmed smoker Margareta is surprisingly addicted to fresh air. Covering her nudity with the blanket, she walks over to the window and opens it wide. She stays there in the cold air, staring out at the late winter day, gray as lead. Nowhere in Sweden is the air as ugly as in Göteborg, she thinks. It's a habitual, familiar thought, the one she uses to console herself when the northern darkness of Kiruna presses her to the ground. She's been lucky after all. Had it not been for a coincidence, she might very well have had to live her whole life under the metallic Göteborg sky. A coincidence in Tanum . . . Margareta inhales deeply, letting the smoke seep out from a satisfied smile. She's going back to Tanum today. For the first time in more than two decades, she's returning to the place that determined her adult destiny. She had just turned twenty-three, and was studying archaeology, when it happened. She'd been on a dig there all summer, sifting and brushing her way through the sand of the heather-covered heath in an attempt to reveal yet another ancient rock drawing. All the time, a string inside her had oscillated with expectation. That string was vibrating for Fleming, a Danish visiting professor with a deep voice and slitlike eyes. Even in those days Margareta had already had, to put it mildly, some experience of middle-aged men, and now she was using all the tricks and wiles she had in her bag. She lowered her gaze and drew her hand quickly through her hair when he looked at her, she let her breasts protrude and her hips sway as she walked, laughed softly and cooed at his jokes during the coffee breaks. Initially, he'd been more intimidated than flattered. Although he did often seek her out, smile and laugh back, he took no initiative. Instead he would mention--increasingly often and out of context--his wife and children, his age and obligations. But Margareta didn't release her grip. She was fanatical by nature, then as now, and the more he flaunted his signals and evasions, the more intently she would lock eyes. She wanted him! The problem was that she didn't really know what she wanted him for. They would go to bed together. Naturally. At night in her tent she would often fantasize about how he would embrace her waist with one arm while undoing his fly with the other hand. He would tremble and fumble, but she would not aid him. On the contrary, she would exacerbate things by pressing her crotch to his, rotating it slowly. Once his fly was open, however, she would allow her own hand to find its way in, cupping his sex, which would rise, throbbing and erect, out of the shapeless lump under the white cotton weave of his briefs, after which her fingers would wander on, light and flitting, like butterfly wings. But sleeping with him was only the means. Not the end. Margareta had a feeling all she would be able to see was the mirror image of her own desire in his, and she really didn't mind. A different void in her was waiting to be filled afterward, she knew, as they lay in the heather surrounded by the summer's night. That was when Fleming would say or do something--she didn't know what--but something that would forever fill every empty cavity in her body. From that moment on, she would live in satisfaction. Forever filled to overflowing. And at last it happened. One evening Fleming put his arm around her waist while his other hand fumbled with his fly. Margareta's hand embraced his sex and her desire burst into pure anticipation as she sank under him into the heather. Shortly afterward Fleming exploded. After which it was over, because once Fleming's cock had slackened he turned out to have nothing with which to fill her. His weight, which had been solace and a promise such a short time ago, was now stifling, threatening. Gasping for air, she heaved him aside. He reacted not at all, simply grunted and changed position, sound asleep in the flowering heather. To this day Margareta has no idea what made her get up and go. It would have been more her style to stay put, snuggling in his armpit, more like her to be content for a few months with the crumbs he had to offer, rather than immediately to begin to dream of larger ones. But the bitter taste of disappointment in her mouth moved her to pull on her shorts and leave. She walked intentionally in the wrong direction, away from the dig and the archaeologists' campsite, toward something different . . . "Oh, honeybunch," Margareta consoles herself, standing at an open window twenty-five years later. She reaches out with one hand from the blanket in a floundering gesture, as if she wanted to reach through time and touch the empty girl wandering across the heather at Tanum. But at the same instant she realizes what that gesture implies about her perception of reality, and stops herself in mid-movement, changing the direction of her hand. It grasps her cigarette instead, and stubs it out. Margareta is a physicist and, as such, slightly intimidated by contemporary physics. Sometimes she has the impression that concepts like time, space, and matter are dissolving right in front of her eyes, and then she has to stop herself, rein in her bolting imagination, and persuade herself that, from the human point of view, nothing has changed. Here on earth, matter is still solid, and time is still a river running through the world from the beginning of life until its end. It is only in theory, she tells herself, that time is an illusion. To people, time is real, and therefore it is a signal of human madness to try to reach through it, for instance to try to console a twenty-years-younger edition of oneself. She shuts the window hard, pulls the curtains, and lets the blanket fall to the floor. She stretches. Now she'll shower and make herself beautiful, and then she'll bounce off in Claes's old jalopy, first to Tanum and then on to Motala and, eventually, Stockholm. The boring conference she has just suffered through in Göteborg filled its function. A whole week away from Kiruna and her goddamn dissertation! In the shower, the memory comes over her again. Suddenly she sees Fleming before her, recalls his anxious smile the next day, and his eager whispers. Wasn't it wonderful? And wouldn't it be wonderful that night, again? And in the fall he would arrange to be her adviser . . . The older Margareta lifts her face into the spray and shuts her eyes. Behind them she sees the young Margareta smile softly and bend deeper over the task at hand. "Sorry," she says. "Sorry, Fleming. I don't think so . . ." "Why not?" She turns her head and looks up at him. "Because I've had enough of archaeology. I'm gonna do physics in the fall. Made up my mind last night." The older Margareta allows herself a dry snicker at the memory of the look on his face. My third sister is lying on a mattress, blinking. Otherwise she is completely immobile. Birgitta has no bed. She doesn't even have a mattress cover; she's lying right on the filthy foam rubber. Her arms are out from her sides; a thin trickle of saliva is running out of the left corner of her mouth . . . She looks terrible. Crucified bread dough. Excerpted from April Witch by Majgull Axelsson All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.