The Gradual Disappearance of Jane Ashland

The Gradual Disappearance of Jane Ashland is Norwegian author Nicolai Houm’s third novel, though the first to appear in English (thanks to translator Anna Paterson). As its title suggests, it is a character study of a woman who, in response to a sudden trauma, feels herself to be slowly fading away to the point where she questions her own existence. Despite the introspective subject matter, however, the novel reads like a thriller, carefully constructed to capture the reader’s breathless attention from the first page.

Jane Ashland is American but her ancestry has led her to Norway. To the distant relatives with whom she has made contact, this is the only reason for her trip, but to the reader it is obvious other motives exist: is she trying to escape from something in her past or attempting to locate a future? This uncertainty is created by a series of short chapters which move back and forward in time. The novel opens moments before its conclusion, with Jane alone in the mountains reflecting on her own death:

“Now, while she is till conscious, she must lock her fingers in a dramatic pose.
Oh my God, it looks as if she tried to grab at something at the moment of death!
…What should she reach for? How should she make it look?”

The scenes which follow show Jane on the plane to Norway; with her therapist; her parents; and in a dialogue (where her part is silence) from a court transcript. It is on the plane she meets Ulf, the man she will later go into the mountains with, refusing his offer of a cup of coffee but accepting his phone number:

“Then why not make a note of my telephone number anyway? Then you’ll have a friend to contact here. Just in case.”

She initially stays in a motel, before moving into the home of Lars Christian Askeland-Nilsen – a distant relative she has tracked down online – at his invitation. Though Jane seems to be acting rationally, it is clear she is distressed. Houm subtly conveys Jane’s loneliness in her need for human contact, for example on the flight:

“So, she allowed her hand to slide along the armrest until it touched his, pressed closer to the large sleeping body, and pretended that she, too, was asleep.”

We see something similar when she first meets Lars with his wife and daughter:

“If only she could leave the hire car behind, join them in their Volvo and sit in the back next to the shy teenager and pick up faint traces of the family’s smell in her nostrils.”

She herself is aware of her fragility, commenting “It was just that insecurity of hers that made her spend her first days in Norway alone.” Staying with Lars places an additional strain on her:

“The hardest thing about staying with the Askeland-Nilsens, Jane had found, was to simulate normal breathing behaviour; she couldn’t groan whenever she felt like it or keep holding her breath until she had to inhale desperately to rise to the surface.”

The question of why Jane feels this way becomes the novel’s puzzle – we are aware something traumatic has happened in her past but do not know what. Houm slowly begins to reveal her previous life in longer sections, beginning with her relationship with Greg, who will become her husband. It could be argued that this delayed knowledge (though common in literature) is a cheap trick, but it has the effect of encouraging the reader to understand Jane as opposed to defining her by this one event. Houm also makes her difficult to judge – for example when she interferes in Lars’ family life, we sympathise with her reasons while understanding Eva’s anger. This is true of most of the novel’s characters – is Ulf simply trying to pick Jane up, for example, or does he want to help her?

The Gradual Disappearance of Jane Ashland is a compulsive read. Even the fact that Jane is a writer could not put me off – in fact, it’s used ironically to demonstrate her life breaking the rules of creative writing:

“Conditionality creates the irreducible gap between the world as you wish it to be and what it actually is: a place ill-suited to creatures in search of meaning.”

Though far from showy, Houm can also write. I particularly liked his description of Jane after she has slept with Ulf:

“She felt like an envelope that had once contained an important document but had been reused for some other, insignificant purpose.”

He also uses the musk oxen, which she and Ulf have been searching for, to provide a conclusion which is both credible and apt. This has the potential (and, I suspect, the cover) to be a best seller.

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4 Responses to “The Gradual Disappearance of Jane Ashland”

  1. JacquiWine Says:

    The title of this reminded me of Piero Chaira’s novella The Disappearance of Signora Giulia, but the novel itself sounds somewhat different. I like what you say about the way in which the author encourages the reader to explore Jane as a person as opposed to her character being defined or stereotyped by a certain event – that’s an admirable approach. And you do make this sound very intriguing. Great review as ever, Grant.

    • 1streading Says:

      Thanks – I do think that the non-chronological telling of the story forces the reader to engage with the character more than either one which reveals all at the beginning or leaves it all to the end.

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Excellent review Grant. I like books that play with the structure of a novel, and the fact that the story ends up being so compelling is a bonus!

    • 1streading Says:

      Yes – I found I wanted to keep reading even though the plot-line is far from an ordinary thriller (though I had just finished the rather dull Flying Mountain!).

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