Sonata for Miriam: A Novel

Sonata for Miriam: A Novel

by Linda Olsson


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A haunting novel of loss, love, and human connection from the author of Astrid & Veronika

Linda Olsson's first novel, Astrid & Veronika, introduced readers to her gorgeous prose, and her extraordinary understanding of human relationships. With her second novel, she once again charts that terrain in a novel that also explores the significant impact of history on individual lives. In Sonata for Miriam, two events occur that will change composer Adam Anker's life forever. Embarking on a journey that ranges from New Zealand to Poland, and then Sweden, Anker not only uncovers his parents' true fate during World War II, but he also finally faces the consequences of an impossible choice he was forced to make twenty years before-a choice that changed the trajectory of his life.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780143114703
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/24/2009
Edition description: Original
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 777,446
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.70(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Linda Olsson was born in Stockholm, Sweden. In 2003, she won the Sunday Star-Times Short Story Competition. Linda has lived in Kenya, Singapore, Britain, and Japan before settling in Auckland, New Zealand, where she lives today. Her previous novel, Astrid & Veronika, was published in 2007.

Reading Group Guide

Linda Olsson’s breathtaking debut novel Astrid & Veronika captivated readers and critics alike, establishing her as a lyrical, intelligent writer with an amazing talent for plumbing the depths of human emotion. Now, in her latest novel, Sonata for Miriam, Olsson confirms her reputation as a nuanced writer with a style that is both poetic and precise. With her unerring sense of detail, Olsson spins an elaborate web of love and sacrifice, grief and deceit, all set in motion by a single chance encounter.

Transfixed by a photo of a young Jewish man lost during World War II, violinist Adam Anker makes a shocking discovery: the man in the photo bears his name. Certain that there is a connection, he begins a conversation with the man’s surviving sister, and soon disappears into a labyrinth of memories and mysterious photographs, changed names and letters never received. Light is shed not only on the secrets of Adam’s family but also on his personal life, as his former lover Cecilia shares with him the truth of her own painful childhood, illuminating the joys of their romance as well as its heart wrenching dissolution. Further, as he tracks down his family’s history—and his mysterious namesake—he soon develops meaningful relationships with the lovers and siblings of the very people he is trying to find. As Adam sifts through the recollections of his new-found friends, he is drawn into his own reminiscence, returning again and again to the memory of his daughter Miriam, and the day that she died.

Weaving together interior monologue, letters, and conversation, Olsson’s writing is perfectly matched to the ephemeral world of memories and secrets which Adam must navigate. Following his journey, Olsson takes the reader to Vienna, Krakow, and Stockholm, all haunted by the secrets of love and loss in Adam’s past. It is in Krakow, witness to the public and private horrors of the Second World War, that Adam finally discovers the upheavals that occurred, and the long-lasting effects of momentous decisions made at a moment in time.

Wherever he visits, Adam finds voices long buried—“the elusive voices,” he believes, “whose absence had been at the center of my existence.” With the help of these voices, Adam begins to create the music that will fill the painful silence of his life and ultimately pay tribute to his lost daughter. In guiding him through this, Olsson avoids sentimentality and easy moral judgments, and instead explores how we balance the choices we make against the choices that are thrust upon us; how we behave in times of love, in times of grief, and in the times when we are caught between the two. In doing so, Olsson presents a rich multi-generational tale, as Adam moves forward and backward through time, each movement bringing him closer to understanding his own life.


Linda Olsson has a law degree from the University of Sweden, as well as a B.A. in English and German literature. After pursuing a career in finance, Olsson published her highly celebrated novel Astrid & Veronika, which has been published in numerous countries around the world. While Olsson was born in Sweden and has lived in Kenya, Singapore, Britain, and Japan, she currently resides in Auckland, New Zealand.

Q. You introduce three sections in your novel with poems by Tadeusz Rózewicz and Tymoteusz Karpowicz. Could you tell your readers a little more about these poets and what their work means to you? How does poetry inform your writing?

When I first realized where this story wanted to go—to Poland—I was gripped by something I can only describe as panic. I had never been to Poland, I knew very little about the country and the people. For me, listening to music takes me wherever I want to, so I began by listening to Polish music. I then turned to the literature that comes closest to music—poetry. I don’t speak Polish, so I had to rely on translations. They were the finest, though, by eminent Nobel Prize laureate Czeslaw Milosz. And I was totally enchanted by the new world of literature that opened. I hope that for my readers the poetry will guide their reading, as it guided and inspired my writing.

Q. During the war, Wanda makes an enormous sacrifice for Adam; this is not only emotionally affecting but historically accurate, as many families were faced with similarly difficult decisions during WWII. Was this story inspired by the experience of anyone you know? Did you do a lot of historical research before writing Sonata for Miriam?

Yes, I did a lot of research. I read history, of course, and I traveled three times to Poland. I also went to Melbourne to meet Polish Holocaust survivors. They received me with warmth and generosity and their stories gave me a basis for my writing. But no single real experience is replicated in my novel.

Q. You convey Adam’s intensely intimate perspective without ever suffocating your reader with too much information. In terms of detail, how do you decide what is necessary to further the plot or create atmosphere, and what can be left to the reader’s imagination?

Perhaps because I see my stories rather than hear them, I expect my readers to see them, too. And if they can, not everything will need to be spelled out in the text. Or so I hope. I would like to think that they will get to know my characters just as I have, and that this will enable them to follow the story without everything being explicitly told on the page. A bit like when you are talking with someone you know well and you can just indicate something and know that the other person will follow your line of thought. It feels a little like what my character Cecilia says when she talks about her art in the novel: “It’s like ripping open your chest. Or letting somebody—everybody, anybody—into your soul. But then of course not everyone is able to interpret what is put in front of them. Or cares to. And that is a terrible risk too.”

Q. Your previous book, Astrid & Veronika, centered on the friendship and experiences of two women. With Sonata for Miriam, you’re writing mostly from a male perspective. Did you have any difficulties inhabiting that voice? What differences, if any, did you find in writing Adam’s story, as opposed to those of Astrid & Veronika?

Initially, it was terrifying. I worried endlessly, but for some reason he just wouldn’t go away. And as soon as I began to write it felt more and more natural. I listened to his story and I tried to write it down as it sounded to me. I came to like him very much, of course, and I hope that my readers—female and male— will be able to relate to his voice and that they will find it genuine.

Q. Initially, Cecilia is somewhat of cipher; we know she is a lover, perhaps a muse, but we don’t know the details of her life. Adam gradually reveals elements of their time together, but then the novel shifts to Cecilia’s perspective and we learn so much more. Why did you decide it was necessary to let her tell her own story?

I struggled with the technical form for a long time. In the end I felt that she had to be allowed to speak for herself. She is such a private person, an enigma to those who touch her world. Nobody else could possibly tell her story. When I had a first reaction from a (male) reader I was absolutely thrilled, and very relieved, to hear him say that Cecilia’s part of the book moved him the most.

Q. Your descriptions of the various locations in the novel are incredibly evocative. Do cities have particular personalities? Do they inspire specific moods in their visitors or inhabitants? How did you choose your locations for the novel?

Absolutely. The old cities of Europe are like old people to me. Friends. At the same time they are shaped by the people who inhabit them, of course. Under constant development, though often the changes are too gradual to be noticed during a human lifetime. Just like my character Adam, the city of Krakow came to me in a dreamlike fashion. I don’t know why. But once I realized the city would come to play such an important part in the novel I went there. I was unprepared for what it would be like. But just like Adam I walked the streets with an eerie sense of belonging. And I fell hopelessly in love with the city.

Q. What is your least favorite aspect of the writing process? How have you developed as a writer since your first novel? In your work, what are you most proud of?

I like all aspects of writing. It’s the not writing that is so hard. Days with no work done. Endless procrastination. I am proud of both my novels: proud that I have managed to finish what I started—and proud that I started. I think that I have possibly become a more conscious writer, and I am not sure that this is an entirely positive development.

Q. Describe your ideal reader. What kind of reader are you?

I touched on this above. It makes me very happy when readers tell me that they cried when they read my book. My ideal reader responds emotionally to the text, takes it on board and makes it his or her own. This is also how I like to read. Sadly, I am finding it increasingly difficult to read without noticing language or structure. But when it happens, when the text finds its way straight into my heart, then it’s a miracle.

Q. Music is a prominent feature in your writing. In what ways, if any, do you find writing and music to be sympathetic arts? Do you listen to music as you write? If so, are there any particular artists or works you find yourself returning to?

I listen to music all the time, and most certainly when I write. I think that music evokes emotions better than any other art form. A piece of music has the inherent ability to transport you in time or geographically in an instant. With Chopin or Szymon Laks’ music in my ears my study in Auckland became Krakow and Stockholm effortlessly.

Q. What are you currently working on? How much preparation do you require before writing your novels?

Nothing. Writing and releasing this second novel was probably more of challenge for me than I realized while it was still in my hands. Now, I wander around in a state of bewilderment, not sure what to with myself. But sometimes during my daily morning walk the odd idea emerges . . .

My second novel required a lot of research and reading, while the first novel drew mostly on material that was familiar to me. I have no idea where my next project might take me. Perhaps I should hope for a new challenge, being forced to enter unknown territory in some way.

  • Olsson begins Sonata for Miriam with an epigraph by Szymon Laks, which reads, “But words must be found, for besides words, there is almost nothing” (p. 4). What does this mean? How does it connect to the events of the novel?
  • In the beginning of the book, both Adam and Cecilia live on islands. How does the idea of an island work as a metaphor for their personalities? With that in mind, why is it significant that Adam eventually moves to Krakow?
  • In a very vivid way, Moishe embodies the truth that we all experience: our lives are filled with the ghosts of those we loved and lost. What was your reaction to the way he lives and how he honors the memories of Marta and others?
  • Wanda’s decision to take Adam as her own certainly saved his life, but what effect did it have on her life? What did she gain from this choice? In particular, look at what she says to Adam on her deathbed. What does this tell us about her feelings?
  • Adam is presented with the impossible task of choosing between Cecilia and Miriam. Did he make the right decision? Why?
  • Like Adam, have you ever been prompted to action in pursuit of a family secret or unsolved mystery—to satisfy a question, seek out a person, or return to a place? What was the result?
  • Both Adam and Cecilia find emotional nourishment in their respective arts, yet Adam temporarily abandons his while Cecilia pursues hers to the exclusion of all else. Can art serve as an emotional refuge? Between Adam and Cecilia, whose approach do you believe is healthier?
  • What is the effect of hearing Cecilia tell her own life’s story instead of having Adam tell it? Did it shed light on her decisions earlier in the novel? Do you blame her, sympathize with her, or both?
  • “Memories are unreliable,” says Adam. “I carry memories that are now so worn I can’t possibly tell if they are accurate. I am sure they have been shaped by my handling” (p. 9). How does this statement affect your reading of a novel that is so rooted in memory? Do you have a similar experience with your own memories? Is it necessary for memories to be accurate, or does the act of remembering serve a deeper emotional purpose?
  • How do the poems at the beginning of sections I, II, and III connect to the themes of those sections? Express in your own words what you believe each poem says.

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Sonata for Miriam 3.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 10 reviews.
kiwifortyniner on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Being a Kiwi myself, it was great to read a book by a Kiwi author some of which was set in NZ. Olsson had thought of calling this book "The consequences of silence and she begins it with a quote from "Music from another World" by Simon Laks which goes like this " but words must be found for besides words there is nothing" and this to me was the important theme in the book. To give a quick summary- Adam lives with his daughter on Waiheke Island in NZ and on this Saturday morning his daughter says to him that he should get out and have an adventure for it was Saturday. She goes off, and he does that. He goes to the War Memorial where he sees a photograph of a man that shares the same name that he was born with, and a note from the man's sister. This obviously shakes him as he knows nothing of his past for his mother would not tell him. She would just say we never talk about it. We never even think about it. It will go away. We will forget. On his return home that day Adam's world is shaken further as he learns his daughter has been killed in a tragic accident. It is not until a year later that Adam follows up on the note he saw at the museum and begins a journey to fill in the gaps in his past. He is lamenting the fact that he did the same to his daughter as his mother did to him. He never told her about her mother when she asked and while it is now too late for his daughter he needs to find out about his past. He also needs to see Cecilia, the mother of his daughter, whom he has not seen for nineteen years- the length of his daughter's life. The journey takes him to Krakow in Poland where meets an old friend of his family who can fill in the blanks in his past for him. Then he returns to Sweden to see Cecilia to come to terms with the impossible choices she forced him to make when they parted.The first part of the book is written as if to Cecilia, but the latter part is written in her voice so that she can speak for herself and tell her part of the story.This book is beautifully written. It highlights to me the importance of words, the importance of our past to us and the dramatic effect that significant events in history can have on peoples lives.
momgee on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
In her second novel, Linda Olsson explores the themes of love, loss, choices, and memories from the past. A single decision can change a person's life and the lives of those who come after.Even inaction or silence has repercussions. One morning Adam Anker's daughter, Miriam, had urged him to "Get out, Dad. Have an adventure. It's Saturday!" Little did he know that this simple act would forever impact his world. Adam's thoughts in retrospect: " If I had listened more carefully, would I have been able to hear more? Could I have heard it in the lingering sweetness of the final bars of the music that was playing in the background? Seen it in the light that washed over my daughter's face? In the graceful movement of her hand? Tasted it in the bitter flavors of the coffee?Should I have known that this scene, in its everyday triviality, would become the shimmering crescendo of the memories on which I now sustain a sort of life?"When Adam Anker visits the Holocaust Gallery in Auckland Domain Museum, his entire life is changed and a course of action set in motion to come to terms with Adam's past. Adam sees a picture of a man named Adam Lipski which sends his senses reeling. Elusive memories flit in and out of his brain. Lipski, the name he was born with but no longer carries, sends him on a search for family and answers to the past.This journey takes him to Krakow, Poland and then on to Sweden. In Krakow he tracks down Adam Lipski's sister, Clara, and from her he gets more pieces of the puzzle. These pieces give him a better sense of who he is now and why his childhood was the way it was. This part of his search also introduces him to more key people from the past. These characters are an integral part of the story.The next leg of the journey takes him to Sweden to meet up again with Miriam's mother, Cecelia, whom he has not seen for almost twenty years. Before Adam arrives in Sweden, the narrative is picked up by Cecelia and told from her perspective, we see many more pieces of the past and how they reflected on her relationship with Adam. In his journey Adam finds much more than he set out to find originally. All the pieces come together to make some semblance of resolution and a feeling of peace. This is but a brief synopsis of Adam's personal journey. The writing in this novel is simply exquisite. The images evoked are so clear. This is one of the most visually descriptive books I have read in a long time and I can't remember a novel where the inner most thoughts and feelings of the characters are so intimately expressed.Ms. Olssen has a deep understanding of the human emotions and this uncanny ability is ably depicted in her writing. She not only lets us see into the characters' heads, but creates a mood and tone to the novel that is almost haunting. The way Adam's memories are revealed is like looking through a gossamer curtain rippling in the breeze. A little bit is revealed as the curtain moves, even then it is not quite wholly grasped, but fleeting and elusive. An absolutely excellent read not to be missed.
dasuzuki on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book follows Adam as he seeks answers to his past and find out who his parents were as well as how he came to be a single parent of his daughter Miriam. This book was a pleasure to read as you slowly peel back the layers of Adam¿s history but at certain transitions I was a little confused as to what was going on.For the most part the book works its way backwards through Adam¿s memories until the very end when Adam¿s journey concludes. You know that Adam¿s daughter, Miriam, dies but not how. That is actually not revealed almost to the end of the book. You also do not find out who the mother of Miriam is until a good while into the book. There were several surprises. I was shocked by the ultimatum that Adam¿s true love issues him and who Adam¿s real mother was and how he ended up with the woman he had thought was his birth mother. If you want to know the truth you have to pick up the book!
cbl_tn on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
After his daughter's death changes his future, composer Adam Anker begins a search for his past. His quest takes him from his home in New Zealand to his birthplace in Poland, where he learns about his family origins. He then travels to Sweden to see his daughter's mother for the first time in almost twenty years.I like music, I like stories about family history and family secrets, I like New Zealand and Europe, so I expected to like this book. Unfortunately I didn't. I don't especially care for the style in which the story is told. The narrators analyze their thoughts, words, actions, and the choices facing them to the extent that I felt like I was reading a therapy journal. The two main characters were so self-absorbed that, even though I was reading their innermost thoughts and feelings, I felt excluded. I prefer novels weighted more towards action than introspection, so this book really wasn't a good fit for me.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A beautifully written, memorable book. Miss Olsson is an author to follow.
Dr-Phyll More than 1 year ago
This is a very well written book about relationships. The story is captivating and will keep you interested from beginning to end. If you've ever been in a compliated relationship, you will be able to relate to this book. It is a good book to snuggle up with a cup of hot cocoa on a cold winter night.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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bigeyes More than 1 year ago
could not put it down. Wanted to find out what would happen to the caracters in the book. I have already lent the book to friends to read with hopes that they will enjoy this book as much as I.
yowen2010 More than 1 year ago
I honestly did not like this book. I found it to be confusing, disappointing, and lacking in a lot of places. Most of the time, I had a hard time understanding what was happening, who was who or why things were happening. The characters weren't clear as well as the storyline. The idea for the story was original and interesting but the actual writing of the story lacked. It was lacking in explanations, and details yet there was a whole lot of the author's opinions, thoughts and endless rambling of irrelevant things which also didn't make any sense and threw me even more off. I'm sorry to say but I don't recommend this book.