“Though there were many aspects to Scandinavian living that were indeed exemplary, and from which the rest of the world could learn a great deal, I grew increasingly frustrated by the lack of nuance in the picture being painted of the region.”
After fifteen years of living in Denmark with his Danish wife and two children, Michael Booth noticed something curious. Although Denmark, and the other Nordic countries of Iceland, Sweden, Norway, and Finland, frequently topped global happiness surveys, they didn’t seem to be particularly happy. Moreover, the British and American media seemed to view the Scandinavian countries as some kind of northern Utopia, oblivious to the quirks and foibles that were clearly visible to him as a long-time resident of the region. This perception persisted despite the staggering popularity of the dark and gruesome mystery novels of the likes of Henning Mankell and Stieg Larson, and the surprising success of Scandinavian police dramas abroad. This cognitive dissonance prompted Booth to pen a travelogue about the aspects of Scandinavian history and culture the rest of the world seems willfully oblivious to.
Although he covers five countries, Booth is clearly the most familiar with Denmark, his long-time residence, a fact which shows in the fifteen chapters dedicated to it compared to only five for Iceland, and seven apiece for Norway and Finland. Only Sweden comes close, with eleven chapters, mainly filled out by Booth wrestling with the quiet contempt with which the other four nations sometimes regard their Swedish neighbours. Aimed at a British or American audience, Booth frequently refers back to equivalent British and American statistics to provide context for his readers as he explores the vagaries of Scandinavian life and culture.
Booth is an inquisitive and wide-ranging journalist, but you will get the most out of the book if you are expecting a humourous and insightful travelogue rather than an in-depth work of sociology. A more serious social inquiry wouldn’t leave the most likely explanation for Scandinavian happiness to a drive-by comment in the epilogue: “One of the keys to happiness, experts tell us, is autonomy in one’s life—the luxury of being able to decide your own destiny and achieve the fulfillment of self-realization.” The economic equality, educational opportunity, and social mobility of the Nordic countries provide this autonomy in spades. Booth has nevertheless made a concerted—though not scholarly—effort to delve into the Nordic psyche.
Whereas the rest of the world tends to idealize the Nordic countries, proximity has given them their own brotherly rivalries, and Booth turns to these stereotypes and jokes to interrogate the strengths and weaknesses of these modern Utopias. Why do their neighbours all think the Finns are drunks even though they consume no more alcohol than the European average? Why do Finnish men think Swedish men are effeminate? Booth has many theories about these perceptions, and he floats these balloons out to his various interview subjects with abandon. He allows them to poke holes in them, never particularly offended if one of his ideas doesn’t pan out. He is a sharp interviewer in that his ideas elicit interesting responses rather in that he is always right in his initial observations.
Despite some griping, it is quite clear that Booth is actually very fond of Scandinavia, something which is never more evident than in the blusteringly humourous chapter about Nordic monarchies. It is one instance where Booth seems to be wearing his own rose-coloured glasses as he views the region, venting his bewildered outrage about the fact that these supposed paragons of modernity are still clinging to such an “absurd, anti-democratic carnival” as monarchy. As the flustered English republican puts it, “That’s the kind of nonsense us class-ridden, postcolonial, socially desiccated Brits cling to; this is not the cut of social democracy’s jib!” Even as he views their faults, Booth can’t help but idolize the Scandinavians a bit as well.
Overall, the reader is less likely to emerge with a negative impression of Scandinavia than a newfound sense of differentiation and complexity amongst five countries that North Americans tend to regard as basically similar. Though I have spoken in generalities for most of this review, I now know more about the aftermath of the Icelandic banking collapse, the impact of Norway’s $600+ billion sovereign oil fund, Sweden’s open door immigration policy, and Denmark’s chart-topping personal income tax, in addition to more humourous topics like oil-rich Norwegians hiring Swedes to peel their bananas, and long-locked Swedish soldiers donning hair nets in the 1970s rather than submitting to a military buzz cut. Booth has both an eye for the weird, and a nose for the serious issues that cause Nordic life to fall somewhere short of our idyllic fantasies.