Tag Archives: Norwegian fiction

The Cold Song by Linn Ullmann

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.

cold songThe 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.

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Filed under Fiction, Ullmann Linn

Days in the History of Silence by Merethe Lindstrøm

“Between everything that has happened and everything that happens, there is a dividing line, distinct and defined, like a wall, and the past stays behind that, shut off, forgotten.”

I wouldn’t go as far as to say that the Norwegian novel Days in the History of Silence by Merethe Lindstrøm is plotless. There is a plot there, but it’s secondary to memory and the idea in which silence, a lack of discussion of some of the more traumatic events in our lives erodes at the foundations of contentment, creating an atmosphere of uneasy disquiet.

days in the history of silenceAt the heart of this novel, which runs to 230 pages in my edition, is Eva, our narrator, a Norwegian woman, a former teacher who is married to Simon, a retired physician. The presenting dilemma is Simon’s deterioration. He’s lately been given to wandering, but more than anything else, he’s sunk into silence. Is this just aging, Alzheimer’s or is there something else at work? Eva and Simon’s three adult daughters, arguing that this is too much for their mother to cope with, are pushing their mother to put Simon in a home. The application form remains blank, and Eva’s three daughters are angry that she won’t begin the process. But that’s not the only thing they’re angry about. They’re also very angry that Eva and Simon dismissed their much-loved Latvian housekeeper, Marija. They want an explanation, but none is given.

This is basically the plot, but Days in the History of Silence is one of those books that is diminished by a plot description. Instead this is a novel of memories with a focus on the lives of Eva and Simon, the patterns of established behaviours, the connections between lost boys, and a linkage between events in which disturbing elements entered their lives, only to leave, and then to be included in the baggage of silence and secrets. Eva gave birth to a son when she was 17 and gave him up for adoption–a secret she only revealed to Simon after they were married. Simon, for his part, keeps the fact that he is Jewish secret from his children. He learned how to live with silence when he and his family hid during WWII, and it’s a state that he learned to accept.

The novel begins with Eva’s memory of a day, decades earlier, when a young man came knocking at the door asking to use the telephone.

I heard the children from inside the living room. Helena was just a baby at that time, she was lying in a sleeping bag while the other two were playing on the floor beside her. I heard the time signal on the radio, behind him lay the garden, at that early hour the air is motionless, the rain from the previous evening only a slight dampness on the leaves, the green grass newly wakened, dazed, something quivering in the transition from shadow to the sudden touch of sunlight. I don’t know what I was on the lookout for, perhaps an excuse to shut the door.

The incident, which brought something dark and unpleasant into Eva’s life haunts her, and she recalls that day often in the decades that follow:

The episode that has a hard and inevitable quality when I reflect on it. It is as though it is scored into or through something. A gash, like a tear in the canvas, in the perfectly normal day, and through that hole something has emerged that should not surface, not become visible.

But there are several other things that Eva would not rather talk about–the baby boy she gave up at age 17 and also Simon’s Jewish background. There was a period years earlier when Simon began trying to find out what happened to his many relatives who vanished during the war.  During a drive in the car with the sleeping children decades before, Simon asks Eva how any human being could have killed children in the extermination camps and then casually gone home for the day. Eva does not want to discuss it; to her, such speculation is “coarse and indiscreet,” and she tells him, “don’t drag all that darkness in here.” A lifetime of silence descends onto the life of this couple and the things they don’t discuss increase. To Eva, “words are a way” into their lives and their minds, and some things are better left unsaid.

While Eva appears to be the one who doesn’t have a ‘problem,’ I’d argue that Eva’s insistence on not discussing certain things is corrosive, but then while on the surface she seems to be this nice, respectable, boring wife and mother, there’s some rather unhealthy stuff bubbling away under the surface. I’ll even go as far to say that when it comes to emotional reactions, there’s something horribly wrong–the baby… the dog…. This lack of appropriate emotional response, an emotional disconnect, is in direct contrast to Simon’s moving story of how he hid with his family from the Nazis, and the terribly fate of his young Aunt and cousin.

While the novel is ostensibly about the consequences of a lifetime of not discussing certain topics, the novel appears to centre itself on the dismissal of the housekeeper, Marija. The reason behind her dismissal is not revealed until close to the end of the book, so it becomes a ‘secret’ in itself–a rather underwhelming secret, a slow build up, but easy to guess, which actually works against the book. With Eva as our emotionally disconnected narrator, this is a subtle, slow, and even at times a mundane novel–not a page turner by any means, but in spite of its occasional misstep, I enjoyed it immensely. While Eva and Simon may appear externally as the epitome of the successful life, there are deep scars below the surface, and this author asks–how do we live with damage? Do we move on and pretend it never happened, or do we “drag all that darkness in.”

For Tony’s review and a different opinion, go here

Translated by Anne Bruce. Review copy

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Filed under Fiction, Lindstrøm Merethe