Part travelogue, part memoir, but not fitting neatly into any defined genre, the book follows Englishman Brown as he returns to the country where he had spent time as a child and during his first marriage. He sets out to drive “as far as I could into Sweden”, and documents his experiences.
As the title suggests, a lot of his thinking happens while fishing, and it's in these passages set in the vastness of Swedish nature that Brown is at his most lyrical and meditative.
He draws links between his personal challenges and those faced by Sweden: when Brown left the country in the 1980s, his marriage had fallen apart and Sweden was experiencing dramatic shifts. The assassination of the prime minister, Olof Palme during that decade has often been called the moment when the Nordic country “lost its innocence”, and Brown's exploration of Sweden 20 years later could be seen as an attempt to get closer to both his own and Sweden's past.
When he returns, he feels that the Sweden he knew no longer existed. But is that a true reflection of reality, or the effect of rose-tinted nostalgia? Or did the Sweden he thought he knew ever exist at all?
Fishing in Utopia has been described as “a lament for a lost Eden” and won the Orwell Prize in 2009.
Here's what Book Club members had to say:
“A really reflective account of life in Sweden but also autobiographical. Delighted with this choice!” – Niamh Walker
“Like a box of chocolates I have dipped into and savoured each story, memory and insight. I particularly enjoy his fishing stories as this is the time he becomes most lyrical about the countryside he loves,” – Diana Haines
“Despite its pessimistic subtitle, I found British expat Andrew Brown's memoir “Fishing in Utopia: Sweden and the Future that Disappeared” to be a solid meditation on contemporary Sweden that never truly exposes a dark underside.
It is a thematic hybrid: part lyrical reflection, part conventional autobiography, part social commentary. It's most effective when those components align, allowing Brown to illustrate social observations through experience, such as his time working in a small rural factory in the 1970s. It's a place where he encounters Sweden's vast housing construction program, as well as co-workers who both confirm and reject Swedish stereotypes. Political and social ideas are more varied than expected, with ascetic worldviews and lingering strains of conservatism running against the progressive, futuristic vision of the Social Democrats. Lyrical, overlong reflections on fishing (a well-worn thematic hook) are best appreciated in limited doses, and offer a somewhat cliched metaphor for nature-bound individualism in the face of conformity.” – Sten Johnson
“I bought this book years ago on whim and then it sat there, as I was thinking it would be a bit boring. I was wrong. Some of us can identify with the somewhat notion of this idyllic place, I know I am guilty of idolising Sweden at times, however this book quickly brings you back to reality: that nowhere is perfect. I think he is honest in assessing his love/hate relationship and his disappointment, which makes it all a bit melancholy and sad. I still remain in love with this country and keep the faith it might not be perfect but it might be perfect for me,” – Samantha Hammell
Some reviews have been edited for clarity or length. Thanks to everyone who submitted reviews for this book and joined in the discussion or read along.
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What to read next: The Almost Nearly Perfect People by Michael Booth, another British writer in the Nordics, discusses similar themes by delving into the socialist welfare state and looks at each of the Scandinavian countries. The style is a hybrid of journalistic and conversational writing in contrast to Brown's travelogue-autobiographical mix, but I'd certainly recommend reading this if your interest was piqued by Fishing in Utopia.
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