Ankomst

“Clear and measurable phenomena are what I want,” the narrator of Ankomst tells us, “The language of indisputable realities, rather than dumb, undefinable feelings.” Yet her time in the far north of Norway – “This is where the world ends” – collecting data on seabirds, is far from clear or measurable as she finds she cannot entirely escape the abusive relationship with her husband, S, which sent her there, or entirely embrace the newer relationship with Jo which she hoped would flourish amid the snow and ice. Feeling guilt for leaving her young daughter, Lina, behind, she is also haunted by the death of a child more than one hundred years before.

Ankomst (the title, meaning ‘arrival’ or ‘entry’ remains untranslated, which makes me wonder if it has connotations of ‘visitation’, a suggestion of the supernatural) is Gabrielsen’s second novel to be translated after The Looking-Glass Sisters in 2015, the story of two sisters in which setting – the claustrophobic interior of the family home – is equally important. On this occasion Gabrielsen is translated by Deborah Dawkin, whose previous work for Peirene Press includes Hanne Orstavik’s The Blue Room. The novel begins in hope as the narrator, having arrived in her isolated outpost, calls Jo:

“As I call him, an intense joy rises up inside me. Joy for everything that lies behind us and for what is in store, the experiences that are to come, the time that we’ll spend together out here.”

Almost immediately plans are changed as Jo tells her that he cannot yet leave his daughter as she has done:

“As though his love for Maria is greater than mine for Lina.”

The situation is complicated by their ex-partners: while S has insisted on custody of Lina, Jo’s ex-wife is often too busy to look after Maria. Yet, Jo’s reluctance to leave her also feels like a criticism, one previously in evidence in a scene recalled later when the narrator and her daughter sleep over at Jo’s: talking about her project she discovers that Jo is not really listening, “because his attention was directed towards the children.” It is on that same visit that he tells her, regarding leaving her child:

“I find this decision of yours so problematic that I don’t even know what I think about you anymore.”

This may make us speculate as to how certain Jo joining her is, one of a number of aspects of the narrative which we become increasingly unsure about. Certainly, she seems very afraid of her ex-husband, S, one reason why she has travelled to such an isolated spot, “out of S’s panoptic gaze and hopefully out of his mind.” She mentions a number of occasions when she fears his anger, including one when he suddenly turns the car off the road and down a deserted track. At the same time, we must remember that it is she who has brought the relationship to an end by having an affair, and so some anger is perhaps to be expected. The feelings of others seem to be an area of difficulty for her:

“Emotions should be like that too. Measurable. Predictable.”

Her fear, however, is real: at one point she receives a text from S and does not dare read it for two weeks.

Her reliability as a narrator is also called into question by her increasing obsession with an event which took place more than a hundred years before, when a child is killed in a fire at the settlement where she is living. More and more frequently she finds, “I drift into the thoughts of Olaf and Borghild,” increasingly identifying with Borghild:

“I continue to see her in my own movements… When I open the stove door and put on a couple of logs, I think how she too sat like this, on her knees, as she blew the embers to kindle a flame.”

At one point she thinks she sees Borghild, only to realise it is her reflection. That Olaf blames Borghild for their son’s death also seems to conflate with her own neglect of Lina:

“I am spinning a story out of thin air and my own experiences.”

The novel is taut with tension. Will Jo appear as promised? Will he narrator survive alone? And will S, as he has threatened, find her? Gabrielsen emphasises her isolation through accidents such as when she sprains her ankle or cuts her face with a fishing hook. She also regularly reminds us of S, not only through flashbacks and texts but when the narrator has her supplies delivered and the captain tells her S has “asked me to keep him informed of the situation here.” That he looks at her with “a scepticism mixed with a hint of concern” suggests that there might be reason to worry, as does her loss of memory for a few hours which include a conversation with Jo. As the end nears she feels “utterly alone, in a vulnerable place, and with the threat of a visit hanging over me.” All is prepared for a masterful conclusion.

Ankomst is a compelling human drama with the tension of a thriller. It asks unsettling questions about our relationships – with those we love, those we once loved, and those we should always love. Increasingly the reader, too, is isolated, as characters become less certain, their solidity dissipated as if walking off into a snow storm. By the end, we are left to answer those questions alone.

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6 Responses to “Ankomst”

  1. winstonsdad Says:

    i like they way the tension and madness built up during the book

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    A very unreliable narrator indeed – which I like, so will have to look out for this one!

  3. JacquiWine Says:

    The Looking-Glass Sisters didn’t particularly appeal to me, but this sounds more my kind of thing. I do like a novel with strong sense of tension!

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