Hanne Orstavik’s The Blue Room remains one of my favourite Peirene Press titles, an unsettling exploration of a mother-daughter relationship. Four years on another of Orstavik’s short novels, Love, has belatedly appeared in English (this time translated by Martin Aitken). It, too, focuses on a mother and child, though, if The Blue Room suggested an over-bearing, over-protective mother, Love presents us with something quite different.

Even in its opening chapter there seems to be a disconnect between Vibeke and her son, Jon. While he eagerly awaits her return from work, she enters the house without giving him a thought. We know this as Orstavik presents the narrative from both Vibeke and Jon’s point of view, moving between them from paragraph to paragraph. This technique will be important later when the characters separate, but even here seems designed to demonstrate their apartness. Though she is home, Vibeke has little thought for Jon, but continues to think about work and “the brown-eyed engineer” who “had smiled at her at several points in the presentation.” That he is on her mind is obvious when she sees the tail lights of a car disappearing:

“The engineer, she thinks, perhaps it was him.”

As a single mother, exhausted after a day’s work, her daydreams are perhaps excusable, and even her impatience with her son when, though speaking to him kindly:

“Can’t you just go, she thinks to herself. Find something to do, play or something?”

As Jon leaves to sell raffle tickets for the sports club he has joined (the two of them are recent arrivals in the village, with a back story only vaguely hinted at), Vibeke is, again, elsewhere (“To go with a dark, brown-eyed man, she thinks with a little smile.”) She bathes herself in preparation for a night out while Jon endures a number of strange encounters beginning with an old man inviting him into his basement. These encounters, with various strangers, seem designed to suggest a series of possible dangers to an adult perspective, while at the same time conveying the essential strangeness of childhood where so many experiences are new. (Take, for example, the teenage girl who invites him in to listen to music and then fall asleep).

It’s a strangeness which, admittedly on the basis of two books, seems typical of Orstvik’s work, making the mundane appear almost surreal. It’s echoed in the white haired woman whom Vibeke meets at the fair (where she has gone without Jon, seemingly satisfied “most likely he’s doing something in his room”):

“The woman dressed in white stand so on a little platform that runs along the front of the stall, surveying the fairground… Vibeke sees her face is powdered white, her lips too. She picks a ticket and pays the woman what she says they cost.”

The woman in white will haunt the novel, like a ghost in both her appearance and ability to appear. Her unspecified connection to the man Vibeke meets at the fair, Tom, gives her an enhanced sense of threat. While Vibeke is with Tom, Jon arrives back home to find himself without his key. Noticing the car is missing, he assumes that his mother must be preparing for his birthday the next day:

“Maybe she’s run out of something for the cake, he thinks. Eggs, maybe, or flour, and now she’s popped out to borrow some. That’ll be it.”

The narratives are now so divergent that it is possible to wonder if Jon exists. Could Vibeke really have forgotten about his birthday, or, indeed, about him?

It is likely that sympathy for Vibeke will vary from reader to reader. Her loneliness is evident, though the vagueness of her backstory suggests Orstavik wishes her to be judge on the actions of one night. The ending is particularly ominous: although Jon has escaped the potential hazards of strangers, he remains outside on a night which Orstavik has repeatedly emphasised as cold.

Just like The Blue Room, Love is a disturbing novel which forces us to re-evaluate the assumption of a natural bond between mother and child, and therefore our idea of love. Orstavik is a writer who fearlessly transcribes the terrifying in the everyday.


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9 Responses to “Love”

  1. Jonathan Says:

    I think your review is spot on. The reader fears for Jon and Vibeke as they innocently put themselves into, what seems to us, as dangerous situations. Both Love and The Blue Room are now favourites of mine as well.

    • 1streading Says:

      Thanks – though I have to say I hadn’t really considered the way in which Vibeke also put herself into dangerous situations until your comment, but you’re quite right. It’s another of many parallels and contrasts – for example, the way it’s Vibeke rather Jon who goes to the fair.

      • Jonathan Says:

        Well, at first I feared for Jon’s safety then as the novel progressed I felt that Vibeke was possibly in more danger than her son but by the end I felt that they would just end up back at home oblivious to the others’ nocturnal adventures—and then we get that ending which was a shock. BTW in my kindle edition the last short sentence appears on its own which makes it even more shocking.

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Excellent review Grant. I’ve seen this one mentioned a lot and it does seem to capture the potential strangeness and danger in everyday life. Added to the list of authors to check out! 🙂

  3. banff1972 Says:

    I’ve been curious about this one, and your review just whets my appetite. Which of her two translated books did you like better?

  4. International Booker Prize 2020 Predictions | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] Enrique Vila-Matas’ Mac and his Problems. Other personal preferences would be Hanne Orstavik’s Love, Vigdis Hjorth’s Will and Testament and A Girl Returned by Donatella di Pietrantonio. Based […]

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