Back in the late 90s, I watched a wonderful film called Dry Cleaning (Nettoyage à Sec). It’s the story of a hardworking middle-class French couple who own a small dry-cleaning shop. Their marriage is stagnant and boring; then they meet an attractive young man, one half of a nightclub act, and invite him into their lives. Dry Cleaning is a perfect example of bored and unhappy people looking for a solution to their problems, and instead of a solution, the addition of the third person, who acts as a catalyst for catastrophic events, only increases the turmoil. The Cold Song by Norwegian novelist Linn Ullmann, a story with the same premise, is set on a coastal area of Norway in a region of scattered holiday homes. It should be an idyllic, peaceful spot, but the various troubled moods of its discontented inhabitants creates an atmosphere of unease–not that we need the unease to grow as shortly after the book begins, a group of local children unearth a body while on the hunt for ‘treasure’ they buried a few months before.
The book opens in 2008 with 75-year-old family matriarch Jenny Brodal drinking before a birthday party she dreads. The party is to be held at Mailund “the big white mansion-like house where she had grown up,” and the event has been organised by daughter, chef and restaurateur Siri against Jenny’s strident objections. While the party is just one indicator of the toxicity of this family’s relationships, it’s also fitting that the party is the turning point of events. Jenny doesn’t want to attend, but as the ‘guest-of-honor’ she has little choice, and her daughter Siri is determined that the party will go on–no matter how her mother feels about it. Siri’s stubborn insistence on having a party is a reflection of the family dynamic at play–on the surface, everything appears normal and healthy, but underneath there’s a dysfunctional family with many hidden secrets.
Then the book moves forward to 2010 with the discovery of the remains of a young girl named Milla who disappeared on the night of Jenny’s birthday party two years before. Milla was employed as a nanny for Siri’s two children: Alma, a rather troubled, feral child and the younger girl, Liv. Most of the plot centres on Siri and her philandering husband, writer, fifty-year-old Jon–a man who has written and published the first two books of a trilogy, “great successes,” but he’s now deep in a case of writer’s block. Hiding out in the attic, his resentment grows as he pretends to write while Siri monitors his so-called ‘progress.’ Milla is employed with the hope that she will solve both Siri and Jon’s problems. With Milla supervising the children, Siri can concentrate on her restaurant and Jon can, in theory, write the last book of the trilogy. Heavily in debt, with his advance already spent, and painfully aware that he’s no longer attractive to young women, Jon has taken over the attic as his writing den. He even resorts to typing out entries from Danish Literature: A Short Critical Survey, so that when Siri listens at the door, she’ll hear him typing and imagine that he’s working.
So day after day Jon sat at his laptop intending to write, either that or he lay on the floor next to his dog and tried to sleep, or he gazed out the window,. or he read the newspapers online and wrote text messages to women who might or might not reply, and after a lot of all that he ate peanuts and drank beer.
Milla, the daughter of a famous artist, who applied “to the ad on the internet for a summer job,” initially seems to be the perfect choice as a nanny. She’s young, carefree and happy to be away from home for the first time. This excursion into adulthood should be safe as she’s living with a family, but while she’s supposed to be looking after the children, an attraction grows between Jon and Milla–an attraction that Siri is all too aware of.
That’s as much of the plot as I’m willing to discuss, but I’ll add that as the summer progresses, relationships between the various characters grow increasingly toxic. The family members seem to harbor old resentments against each other, and Milla, while employed to solve problems, only magnifies them.
Milla isn’t a particularly compelling character, well to be honest, there’s no one here to like, but for this reader, Milla’s lack of appeal was a bit of a problem. The poor girl has no idea that she’s treading on the toxic quicksand of a rotten marriage, and she becomes Jon and Siri’s scapegoat for an entire summer. If she were more appealing as a character, the story would have had added poignancy, but without that, she’s just another person thrown into this poisonous domestic scene. I felt as though I didn’t care about Milla as much as I was supposed to. That put me in the same pot as Siri and Jon, so perhaps Milla’s lack of appeal was deliberate.
The fallout of Milla’s disappearance and death examines everyone’s responsibility towards a young girl who was, after all, the least culpable person in Jon and Siri’s marriage. Under the surface, there’s the intriguing question as to exactly why Siri employed a beautiful young girl and then left her alone with her philandering husband–a man whose infidelities are definitely directed against his wife and are a distracting excuse to not write. It’s one of those situations when human motivation seems so fascinating & complex. When Milla disappears without trace, of course, there’s an alarm raised and a hunt for the missing girl. But does anyone really care? Isn’t it easier with her gone?
And anyway, the whole house was a reminder of Milla. Siri imagined finding strands of dark hair along the baseboards and around the doorframes, in the annex, in the meadow behind the house, in the vegetable plot, under the maple tree, and in her white flower bed.
Translated from Norwegian by Barbara J Haveland. Review copy.