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The Almost Nearly Perfect People: The Truth About the Nordic Miracle, by Michael Booth, Jonathan Cape, RRP£14.99, 416 pages
The fascination with the Nordic region appears to know no limits. Particularly since the financial crisis, everybody from David Cameron and François Hollande to Bill Gates has expressed praise for some or all of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden.
But foreign admirers often fail to do justice to the idiosyncrasies and foibles of these sparsely populated countries at the top of Europe. That is where Michael Booth, a British journalist based in Denmark, comes in. In The Almost Nearly Perfect People, he attempts a corrective, gleefully exposing the wishful thinking that so often distorts perceptions.
Denmark, for example, might regularly be classed the happiest nation in the world but its households are also the most indebted. Sweden, well known for its aversion to involvement in military campaigns, is also a big arms exporter, while Norway’s PR as an environmentally friendly country with lots of hydropower and electric cars is hard to reconcile with its economic reliance on oil and gas.
Booth’s aim is to paint a warts-and-all portrait, weighing the image of a Nordic idyll against a reality in which racism sometimes intrudes, the welfare state is not always all it is cracked up to be, and many citizens struggle with alcoholism and depression. As he visits each country in turn, cumulatively the myth of homogeneity is dispelled; here the Nordics emerge as cousins rather than siblings, with some similarities but plenty of differences in their attitudes to outsiders, ability to make small talk, and such peculiarities as belief in the existence of elves (prevalent in Iceland, in case you were wondering, though perhaps not as widespread as Booth suggests).
Booth’s rollicking travelogue makes for a highly subjective account as he – sometimes deftly, sometimes clumsily – weaves together frivolous anecdote and serious debate. Its appeal will depend in great part on how the reader responds to Booth’s characteristically British sense of humour, comprised in equal parts of self-deprecation and crudeness.
His approach works well with subjects such as Icelanders’ love of eating rotten shark, or the horror of being a Brit in a Finnish sauna. At other times, it can feel a little forced. For instance, in the middle of a serious discussion about how well Denmark is really doing, especially compared with Sweden, Booth inserts the following in parentheses: “As I understand it, a Swedish employee would have to be caught defecating on the CEO’s desk while setting fire to the blueprints for their groundbreaking new product to merit the first written warning of the five required for it to go to arbitration, and even then, the tea lady would have to give her consent to his sacking.”
Behind the jokey tone is a lot of good material. Booth is strong on the fundamentals of the Nordic model, eschewing the hyperbole to which both admirers and critics often succumb as he explores the deep roots of equality, trust and social cohesion in Lutheranism and even Viking culture.
The book, unsurprisingly, is at its strongest on what is essentially his home turf of Denmark (Booth’s wife is Danish). Dealing with the other four countries, he sometimes slips into stereotype or exaggeration – a prime example being his depiction of Norwegians as closet xenophobes.
At heart, though, this is a typical paean to a region from an expat, mixing as it does love for many things local with bafflement bordering on anger at some differences, such as exorbitant food prices and the taciturnity of the Finns in particular. The Almost Nearly Perfect People is also a welcome rejoinder to those who cling to the idea of the Nordic region as a promised land. The style might not be for everybody. But the substance, more often than not, is spot on.
Richard Milne is the FT’s Nordic correspondent