The Divorce of Women’s Hands: On Johanne Lykke Holm’s “Strega”

By Hannah KofmanNovember 1, 2022

The Divorce of Women’s Hands: On Johanne Lykke Holm’s “Strega”

Strega by Johanne Lykke Holm

RAFAELA, THE NARRATOR of Johanne Lykke Holm’s Strega, closes her eyes frequently. Or rather, she shuts them, and often the action is accompanied by a strange and unacknowledged gift: scenes wash across the backs of her eyelids in fleeting sketches — the kind of moments that people take drugs for happen to her easily, fluidly, while she waits for a cable car, leans against a wall, or sits by a fountain. For example, she shuts her eyes and sees “[b]lack fabrics falling through the rain. Dirty water in a pink bathtub. A scene in which I held a grown man’s hands. A scene in which I held my mother’s hands.” In another instance: “Three women handing out carnations and leaflets, old buildings and canals, a bottle of perfume smashing against a wall, the smell of ivy spreading through the room.” It’s less about the content than it is about the mood, and the mood’s interruption on the present scene — the cinematic scrolls are View-Masters of spooky, otherworldly, and, as far as I can tell, irrelevant visions; yet the intrusion of images for Rafaela evokes in miniature the experience of reading Strega, a novel that consumes, that interrupts its reader’s present. With Strega, images rise like smoke from retired candles, accumulating, heavy and disorienting, until the perfume of text chokes the room. Holm’s world is one of richness, of allegory, where blood and milk and mold are common, recurring substances, and color is used generously like an impasto painting. With its coherent set of motifs, Holm’s lacquered prose seems tightly sealed. But in Strega’s case, containment invites not clarity but even greater temptation; at the end of unraveling the novel’s heart, of digging below its headstones, we find an intentionally empty grave.

Translated by Saskia Vogel, Johanne Lykke Holm’s Strega was first published in Sweden in 2020 to acclaim, nominated for both the Nordic Council Literature Prize and the European Union Prize for Literature. Holm’s gothic benefits from a spare but fertile plot: at the beginning of the novel, Rafaela is sent to work in Strega, a fictional town in the Italian mountains, where she joins eight other girls as seasonal staff at a strange hotel. While only one guest ever checks in, the girls labor constantly under close supervision: making and remaking unslept-in beds, learning to cook specific dishes, harvesting herbs from the garden. The girls’ hollow tasks repeat day after day, gathering constantly, like the dust they perpetually sweep. Rafaela summarizes:

We were nine young women doing seasonal work in the mountains, or nine young women put in safekeeping on the backside of the mountain, or nine young women who watched their hands being put to work, watched them lift starched fabrics to their face only to let them fall to the ground, watched them pour strong wine out of large carafes, like the hands of a statue, right into the parched earth, as though to sate it.

Rafaela’s description shifts from an objective one to something more dissociative, more disembodied: hands are watched rather than felt, laboring with lives of their own, engaged with the physicality of the world while the girls keep a distance. This is how Rafaela and her closest friend on staff, Alba, often talk about their hands — as entities beyond them, executing the tasks of the day, unbothered with the content of their true selves. There is an endless amount of analysis one could write about women doing domestic tasks in an empty hotel day after day. But in many ways, Holm’s image, the simple divorce of hands from the women to whom they belong, does it most elegantly. Rafaela describes, indirectly, how the working days pass in the hotel: “Morning after morning, a metallic light fell through the room like a butcher’s knife. I stood and watched it happen.” The weight of repetition, of daytime’s endless return, is laced with violence. Before Rafaela positions herself as the light’s witness — passively, watching it fall before her — there is the slight possibility that she is in its way. I see the light as a literal knife, slicing the flesh of the girls’ hands neatly from the rest of their arms — so that they can still be used.

The visions of disembodiment track with the questions of identity posed by the novel. When Rafaela first sets out to the hotel, she asks: “Who are you when you leave your parental home?” But once at the hotel, ambiguity lingers while the sense of possibility does not; identity is muddied by the convergence of these nine girls’ consciousnesses — they begin to wake from the same dreams, to speak in lofty, indistinguishable italics, to suffer the same corporeal punishments regardless of their culpability. Rafaela explains, “They treated us as one body, so we became one body.” When she looks in the mirror, she is comforted by the blankness she finds there:

In the mirror, I saw a uniformed and anonymous person, face empty and uninteresting. This was a great relief. I didn’t have to show them my true face. It was enough to show them the uniform’s face, a face for a decent life, an orderly life.

Within the structure of her role, within the shape of her uniform, she is able to make herself intelligible without having to disclose or discover anything new about herself. For Rafaela, it’s a relief to subscribe to one kind of existence, an evasion and a postponement of the question she poses in the first pages. Blankness is a blessing and curse that seems to linger over the whole town; often, she describes the faces of those around her as masks, as expressions ripe for projection. People are figures, or archetypes: the worker, the overseer, the bartender, the nun. Needless to say, no one in Strega feels particularly knowable. Later, after a night in town, Rafaela sits hungover at a long table and thinks:

I felt ugly and like a failure. Tried to understand how I was supposed to endure this long life, where one was to arrange oneself into a woman each morning. Where one was to wash with a coarse sponge dipped in boiling water. Where one was to rinse one’s hair in apple cider and let it sparkle in the sun. Where one was to bathe one’s face in brackish water. Where one was to keep cold cream on the nightstand. Where one was to have baby hands with painted nails. I looked at my hands. Like the hands of a murdered woman.

Composing oneself daily as a woman is also a series of repeating tasks, a recipe that involves lots of stirring. This daisy chain of sentences all starting the same way is a pattern (known as anaphora) that appears frequently in the novel — “we were to,” “one could,” “one was to” — and the effect is a series of somewhat didactic lists. In this particular set of instructions, Holm’s repetition of “where” uniquely adds a location at which things are to occur — the location of the female body. The list is interrupted when Rafaela looks down at her hands and again fails to identify with them. They are far from the imagined manicured ones, not just disembodied but devoid of life entirely — murdered.

When Rafaela asks her question at the beginning of the novel — “Who are you when you leave your parental home?” — she follows it up with a vague answer: “A young and lonely person en route to life.” But what are the options? Strega’s insular world sets up two opposing schools: the hotel staff and the nuns of the neighboring convent. A quiet cold war exists between the two: the nuns and the girls do not acknowledge each other, living out life in parallel. Allegorically, the dichotomy presents two paths for women, and more specifically, the subjects of interest in the novel — young adolescent women. Yet both hotel and convent involve a retreat from the real world, a cloistering from view. While, from the perspective of the girls, the nuns “lived out their youth outside of youth. Beyond the time of female friends, forever in the time of nuns,” the nuns view the hotel as “[d]emonic, not because of the sin inhabiting it (women in pink furs, men with large hands, small bottles of strong drinks), but because of the way it situated itself in nature, like a piece of meat, a primal cut, something animal and dripping.” For their alleged differences, the hotel staff and the nuns share something in common — a ritualized set of tasks around which their endless days are organized. The dichotomy is more recalcitrant when you try to pin it down: nuns chaste, hotel wicked. The nuns make saccharine green herbal liqueurs and sticky candied chestnuts. They make sensuous things, foods to put under the tongue, drinks to swirl in a glass. The girls at the hotel starch laundry, sweep, and prepare elaborate dinner service — for no one, for empty halls, “for these nights that never happened.” Their tasks are virginal. That the two paths presented in opposition are revealed to be more or less two sides of the same coin further narrows the field of possibility for these girls’ lives.

One day, as the girls tend to herbs in the garden, a group of nuns walks by and the abbess remarks: “Sisters, there is an impression in the ground shaped like a female body. Look! A red smoke is rising from the hole and spreading.” It’s an image that echoes Cuban American artist Ana Mendieta’s Siluetas (1973–80) series: a body of photographs that capture the suggestive, ephemeral imprints of a female form in various plots of earth. More specifically, the abbess’s description bears a direct similarity to Mendieta’s Untitled (1976), an image that reveals the outline of a woman pressed into sand so washed out it’s almost interchangeable with snow, the wake the body leaves behind smudged with an incandescent red. Mendieta’s work, preoccupied with identity and exile, is a welcome specter in this scene in the woods where the meeting of two groups of women on the outskirts of society takes place, two groups in which belonging involves sacrifice, two groups who, like Mendieta, are preoccupied with ritual, and like Mendieta’s original imprints in the ground, whose erasure or fragmentation is nearly guaranteed by the passage of time.

One night in the heart of autumn, the hotel throws its first and only event — a ritualistic ball to celebrate a holiday unique to the mountain town, a “festival of death.” The following morning, Rafaela identifies that Cassie, one of her coworkers, has gone missing. In a matter of hours, it is clear to all the girls, instinctively, that Cassie is dead. Though the search parties commence, her body is never found. The girls perform rituals around Cassie’s items, around the dress they find laying solemnly in the woods. Rafaela thinks often of the murderer, but in more generalist terms, and the novel becomes in part a meditation on looming, patriarchal danger, on femicide. Rafaela is certain that “there was a murderer waiting for us all.” She tells of the faces the murderer has taken on in her own life:

When I turned thirteen, the murderer moved into a new face. One evening during a holiday by the sea, he appeared in the eyes of my father’s best friend. What was murderous in him looked different. Within his hatred too, the disgust was planted as a condition, but this disgust also contained a sick desire. I understood that the murderer’s inner life operated like one of those dolls that houses several smaller dolls. But which is the innermost doll? This I don’t yet know. Perhaps the innermost doll is simply a red and hateful stone with a murderer’s face.

While the women of Strega are characterized by blankness, Rafaela understands that men, even murderous men, are afforded a depth of interiority. Holm captures the simultaneous disgust and desire that men have towards girls and women, a raw fact of patriarchy that can be hard to reconcile: that men can hate women as much as they desire them. We can also recognize in Rafaela’s thinking, in the constant imagination of these violences from a young age, the sheer space that the persistent threat takes up, the years women spend with its brutal possibility running in the background — and, often, the foreground as well.

After Cassie’s disappearance, the influx of images that Rafaela sees in her mind’s eye invariably takes the shape of the murderer in his platonic form: a murderer who encompasses all murderers:

I squeezed my eyes shut, and the murderer appeared in my mind. It turned out his face was the face of all men. In his features was every single one. In them the whole lineage was collected in a single person, a chosen dangerous representative, the double agent of men. He was a man who leaned back and looked at one unwaveringly. A man who distributed the sum violence of the lineage with calm, methodical hands. Organized himself against all women.

While women’s disembodied hands labor, men’s hands exact violence on behalf of entire lineages. The violence that inhabits the first half of the novel is menacing, gestural, reflected in the mirrored surfaces of the spoons the girls polish, but not yet realized. The violence that preoccupies the second half of the novel is out in the open: gendered, systemic, inherited — it’s a woman’s gnarled birthright, a peril Strega sweats out of every pore of language.

As Strega exemplifies, patriarchal violence against women is meaningfully entangled with the power and products of female labor. Theorist Sylvia Federici has written extensively on the Great European Witch-Hunts, looking at how the systematic devaluation of women’s labor during the transition from feudalism to capitalism is an ideology propped up by violent acts, by femicide. Federici explains that the dawn of a new capitalist order in the 16th and 17th centuries required a massive accumulation of labor power and a newfound control over the population; by denouncing and demonizing women who sought to make their own money outside of the home, or to control their own means of reproduction, as “witches” — and then publicly, brutally, murdering them — female labor, both reproductive and domestic, became naturalized, invisible, and free. The triumph of capitalism; its army of capable, productive hands; and the accompanying bourgeois ideals of womanhood that helped support it were thus ushered in on an ever-growing pile of ashes. It’s worth noting here that “Strega,” the town that both the nuns and the hotel staff inhabit, is the Italian word for witch. It’s also the name of a green liqueur that comes from Benevento, a mountain town in Italy that has its own folklore and mythologies of witches. Holm’s timeless, seemingly placeless fictional tale suddenly has its wheels extended, and they scrape up against the ground; the novel’s commentary on patriarchal violence lands thoughtfully on the world historical map.

The spectacle that defined witch-hunts and witch trials was essential for their effectiveness. Through terror, through public, unimaginably violent torture, fear governed and limited the existence of women and the possibilities of their lives, maintaining societal order. Shortly before Cassie disappears, the girls go together to see a play that echoes both a witch trial and Marina Abramović’s famed Rhythm 0, a work of performance art in which the Serbian conceptual artist put her body in the hands of strangers for six hours. Abramović presented herself as a passive object to attendees who at first treated her benignly, cutting her hair and gifting her roses, and then ended up terrorizing her, slicing her neck and drinking blood from it. The play that the girls of the hotel attend borrows directly from Abramović’s performance:

The game was to walk up to her with various tools. The game was to do things to her body. Someone picked up a rose and handed it to her. She shut her eyes. Someone walked up to her and sliced the skin across her chest. Someone leaned in and licked up the blood. She looked out over the audience and said: This is the story of a teenage girls longing for violence and humiliation.

Violence and humiliation are tactics of objectification, of control. The girl in the play, unlike Abramović, speaks directly to her audience, forcing them to confront their role: they are necessary collaborators in her humiliation. Horrified by the “bloodbath,” Rafaela does what is second nature to her: she shuts her eyes. She shuns participation. But sitting there, in the velvet seat, her body is already implicated.

To leave, to exit the order of the hotel and town, Rafaela and Alba come to understand that they must arrange their own disappearances: “We left everything as we wanted them to find it. We knew that a girl’s life could at any point be turned into a crime scene. This was our crime scene.” They leave behind material traces, arranging their beds and belongings with care to make their disappearances clear: “The room was to vibrate with our absence. We would hang from the ceiling like a curse. We would sit in the walls like a bad memory, a stain that emerged from the carpeting each night.” Like Mendieta’s Siluetas, where the outline of a body pointedly resembles the outline at a crime scene, the girls define their presence through absence, and vice versa. The success of Rafaela and Alba’s departure is due to the fact that they use the methods of violence that create their world as their means to escape it: they disappear, dissolve into the environment, and execute a well-planned performance of their own.

I once had a professor who told me that every time he finished a book, he returned to the first pages, reading them again, reheating the text and letting the style marinate. He encouraged us to do the same, and for a week or two, while in his class, I did. I forgot about the practice until recently, until finishing Strega. But when you close Strega, you continue to feel its presence, its world of glittering silver objects in the sun and red mold and noxious herbs. I returned to the first page, to the first paragraph:

I studied my reflection in the mirror. I recognized the image of a young but fallen woman. I leaned forward and pressed my mouth to it. Fog spread across the glass like condensation in a room where someone has been sleeping deeply, like the dead. Behind me I saw the room reflected. On the bed lay hairpins, sleeping pills, and cotton panties. The sheets were stained with milk and blood. I thought: If someone took a picture of this bed, any decent person would think it was a reproduction of a young girl’s murder or an especially brutal kidnapping. I knew a woman’s life could at any point be turned into a crime scene. I had yet to understand that I was already living inside the crime scene, that the crime scene was not the bed but the body, that the crime had already taken place.

This paragraph is striking, a foreshadowing of the book’s central crime that also negates its own predictions, for “the crime had already taken place.” The sentence says something Federici, Abramović, Mendieta, and Rafaela have all long understood: the crime is simple and unavoidable — it’s being alive in a female body. And it carries with it a lifelong sentence: the journey of reclaiming ownership, of reidentifying with one’s own hands.


Hannah Kofman is a writer living in Los Angeles. She is currently working on her first novel.

LARB Contributor

Hannah Kofman is a writer living in Los Angeles. She is currently working on her first novel.


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