Euphoria | Elin Cullhed #SWEfiction

7 December 1962, Devon


1. Skin. To never again feel the skin of one’s beloved child.

Not another fictionalised biography I hear you cry!

One day I will work out why I am so drawn to this genre. But for now, I give you Sylvia Plath and Euphoria. What do I know about Sylvia Plath? The bare basics only. I have yet to read any of her work, although The Bell Jar is on my TBR shelf. I know she was married to Ted Hughes and that she committed suicide at a young age. I understand that there were some mental health issues plus some concerns about how Hughes reacted to her more challenging behaviours. Lots of young women in particular are drawn to her story and can become quite obsessive (judging by former colleagues and customers at work).

Elin Cullhed is one of those who also became obsessed with the life and work of Sylvia Plath. According to her author bio at Allen & Unwin,

she found herself in a similar position: mother to several young children, wife of another writer, struggling to find space and time for her own work. Euphoria is a meticulously researched work of historical fiction, drawing extensively from Plath’s own journals and work from this time.

Although Cullhed has framed her story around the final year of Plath’s life, this is not a book about her death. It’s all about life and trying to find reasons to be alive and how to live fully, with passion and creativity and courage. It’s also about the year her marriage to Ted Hughes disintegrated.

Being inside Plath’s headspace is not an easy place to be.

I love a good angsty story; angst was my middle name during my late twenties/early thirties! I recognised some of the slightly off-kilter thinking patterns and wild mood swings. I suspect many women struggle in their twenties and thirties to make sense of their lives, to find their voice, the purpose, their passion, with or without a relationship, with or without children. At least, I did. It’s just that being inside Plath’s mind takes all of this agony and ecstasy to the nth degree. It also leaves the reader with a vague sense of disquiet.

Her thinking and reactions swing quickly and unpredictably. One feels a great deal of sympathy and concern, but there’s also a sense of distrust that keeps one from fully believing in her version of events. It’s an awkward position to be in. Wanting to support another woman during her time of need, to support her in living a creative, professional life whilst mothering, yet it’s also easy to see why people close to Plath chose not to stay. She was exhausting.

By the end of Euphoria I too was exhausted.

A mix of depression, anxiety, bipolar and personality disorders created a confusion of feelings and affected her ability to manage daily tasks as well as all her relationships. Certainly the Ted Hughes that comes across in this story is narcisstic, thoughtless, paternalistic. Living with Plath’s highs and lows and need for constant attention and reassurance must have been trying. Even now, with all the knowledge we have about these disorders, and the various options for treatment, living and loving someone with such issues can be a challenge. This fictional Ted Hughes displayed little patience for her moods, although Cullhed only ever showed us Hughes through Plath’s eyes. Every behaviour and conversation and disagreement was filtered through Sylvia’s gaze.

Clearly Sylvia was a fragile person amd clearly her final weeks and months showed someone struggling to get by. Being left alone at such a time no doubt exacerbated her situation. She felt that nobody understood her, but she also exhausted those who did try to stick around. No-one knew how to help her. She creaved attention and being seen, yet was repulsed by it at the same time. This version of Plath gave as good as she got as far as arguments and disagreements were concerned. It was not a happy marriage for either of them.

The mythology that has built up around the story of Sylvia Plath can make it hard to pick out the factual from the iconic. Cullhed has chosen the sympathetic lens, but in reality, it is probably fair to say that Euphoria is not really about Plath. It’s about Cullhed, and about those of us who choose to engage with her mythic story.

Cullhed’s story is just that.

It’s not a psychological exposé or a detailed biography, it’s a poetic, creative reimagining to understand one’s own life through the lifestory of another. Having read so little about Plath and Hughes previously, I do not know how much or how little this reimagining adds to the wealth of knowledge already available. It does appear though that Cullhed knows her stuff. Throughout, the reading experience felt authoritive and immersive and controlled.

It does however go on too long.

By the end it felt like a grind going over and over the same emotional and psychological ground. Maybe that’s the point. If this was how you spent every day thinking and feeling about the world, is it no wonder that escape, in any form, might sound attractive.

Sadly, their son Nicholas also commited suicide age 47.

My greatest fear was this loneliness, this complete stuckness in myself…I would be pickled in my jar of loneliness.

Title: Euphoria | Eufori: En roman om Sylvia Plath
Author: Elin Cullhed
Translator: Jennifer Hayashida
ISBN: 9781838855970
Imprint: Canongate
Published: 15 November 2022 (originally published 1 March 2021)
Format: Demy paperback
Pages: 272
Dates Read: 17 November 2022 - 5 December 2022
This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are our first storytellers.

8 thoughts on “Euphoria | Elin Cullhed #SWEfiction

  1. Interesting post Brona. I am a huge fan of Plath’s work, and I’ve read much on her life. It’s hard to be objective, and you can never get inside someone’s head and really know what their life was like. Accepting that Plath was difficult, and Hughes a pig, there was probably fault on both sides – but in the end I would be in Sylvia’s corner. But I think I would struggle very much to read this – a novelisation of Plath’s life does make me feel very uncomfortable.


    1. I understand completely. I cannot read any novelistaions of Jane Austen. I’ve read so much about her that any playing around with the real story feels almost sacriligeous. Certainly many of the reviews on Goodreads, especially those who were already deep inside Plath’s story, didn’t like it at all.

      The good thing about this book (and I really did enjoy the first three quarters of the book before it got too exhausting) was I now REALLY want to read The Bell Jar. Cullhed also does a tremendous job at showing Plath’s mental and emotional state in a very sympathetic, empathetic way. I believe a lot of it was pulled together from her journals and letters, so the voice felt authentic, at least to a novice.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I don’t know much about Sylvia Plath, either. I’ve been thinking of trying this book, but maybe I’ll read The Bell Jar first. I think it’s supposed to be somewhat autobiographical.


    1. I keep putting The Bell Jar on my CC Spins, but it never comes up! Perhaps it’s time to just read it for it’s own sake. And yes, that was certainly the impression I got from this story, that The Bell Jar was deeply personal and referential.

      Liked by 1 person

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