The Faster I Walk The Smaller I Am

When Amy Arnold, author of Slip of a Fish, was speaking at the Edinburgh Book Festival in August, she discussed her love of Scandinavian Literature and mentioned, in particular, The Faster I Walk The Smaller I Am, the award-winning debut novel by Kjersti A Skomsvold, originally published in 2009, and translated by Kerri A Pierce two years later. The novel’s narrator is an elderly woman, Mathea, who lives a life of solitude, both longing for and terrified by the company and conversation of others. Her isolation begins with her marriage, though this is not something she recognises, talking throughout about her husband Epsilon with love.

Her life has revolved around Epsilon to the point she has wanted little to do with others. Early in their marriage her husband gets her a job cleaning his boss’ house. “But I don’t like mingling with people,” she tells him, “I like mingling with you.” Needless to say, the job does not last long. “Now I’ll have more time to spend with you,” she informs Epsilon, responding to his observation that he will be at work:

“Yes, but you’ll be in my thoughts.”

This is also perhaps the first occasion when she mentions Epsilon retiring, something he refuses to do even when he is past retirement age:

“’But I need a refuge, away from all the …” – for a second I thought he was going to say “togetherness” but instead he said “nakedness.” ‘Does that mean me?’ I asked. ‘I’m not naming any names,’ he said.”

Epsilon, we gather, is not the most affectionate of husband’s; when he makes her a wooden box for her knitting (it could also be argued that the ear-warmers she is always making for him suggest his inability to hear her) the engraving at the bottom, ‘To my beloved Mathea’, is an unusual out-pouring of emotion:

“Usually, I only ever hear him say ‘I love you’ when we’ve already gone to bed and he thinks I’m asleep.”

Her brief and intermittent contact with the outside world is both funny and heart-breaking. She largely avoids her neighbours:

“Sometimes June or his mother peeks out their door at the very moment I do, to grab their newspaper off the mat, and it’s uncomfortable every time.”

Yet when June comes round to borrow sugar, she makes sure to buy more in case it should happen again. Similarly, after she is asked for the time as she returns from the shops, she begins to wear her husband’s watch. The grocery store is another point of contact:

“When I give him my money, I touch the palm of his hand, but he doesn’t seem to notice… if I was kidnapped five minutes later, and the cops came by and showed him my picture, the boy would say he’d never seen me before in his life.”

Her isolation is symbolised in her every expanding collection of jam: she is unable to unscrew the lids of the jars but lacks the courage to ask anyone to do it for her. When the building she lives in holds a community meeting it throws her into panic, and she wishes instead she was under house arrest.

What sets this novel above being simply a story of how the elderly can become detached from society, alongside the engaging if eccentric narrative voice, are the occasional excursions beyond the boundaries of realism into the absurd. One such can be found when June unexpectedly visits and Mathea is able to see how he sees her flat, as we are transported to a time after her death:

“He takes all the pictures off the wall and leans them against the coffee table, and then he takes out a paint brush… Then he rips up the carpet and lays parquet…”

Another story, which seems at first an aside but will go on to provide the novel with its affecting conclusion, is that of Stein, their dog:

“I tried to convince Epsilon that he’d committed suicide… In reality, though, it was me who’d killed him.”

She does this by pretending to throw a meringue into a lake for Stein to fetch; he keeps swimming and is never seen again.

The Faster I Walk The Smaller I Am is a surprisingly light-hearted mediation on death and loneliness, but though it will make you smile, its quirky humour does not disguise the deep sadness which lies at its heart.

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6 Responses to “The Faster I Walk The Smaller I Am”

  1. winstonsdad Says:

    Sounds like one I’d like Grant

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    It does sound rather quirky and intriguing, Grant – I’ll keep an eye out for it.

  3. Max Cairnduff Says:

    It sounds very good, and that’s a nice observation on the ear-muffs. I’m one of those odd people though who struggle with animals getting hurt in books (people I’m fine though…). The dog thing is therefore a bit offputting.

    I still need to read Amy Arnold’s. Perhaps after that.

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