Zero

Nordisk Books are a small press which specialise in Scandinavian literature, publishing only a handful of books a year. If the word ‘Scandinavian’ conjures images of endless gloomy winters rather than cosy Hygge-filled evenings bathed in the glow of the Northern Lights, then this may well be the publisher for you: Gine Cornelia Pedersen’s Zero (translated by Rosie Hedger) is the third Nordisk novel I have read and none of them have been particularly cheery.

Nordisk publications also seem to share a fascination with form and Zero is no exception. Its narrative is a series of short sentences, each standing alone, fired at the reader with alarming speed as a result of the absence of punctuation. This quickly conveys the distress of the narrator, from the first moment we meet her as a ten-year-old child, to her life as a young adult. It is a novel of breakdown, and has the visual appearance of having broken down, the text fragmented into grammatical components that follow each other without always connecting. The brevity and separation of the text fills the pages with white space reflecting the emptiness the narrator often feels. The repeated ‘I’ might also be said to demonstrate a self-obsession which makes it difficult for her to consider the feelings of others.

The narrator’s mental health is fragile from the first moment of the narrative, though the language might make us question whether its urgent present tense reflects a ten-year-old’s voice or if we are reading recollection which feels in the moment. How else to explain, “I do the kind of things to my sister that suggest I’ve got hidden sociopathic traits”? There is also a self-awareness which suggests then narrator looking back:

“I’m influenced by absolutely everything around me”

The transition to adolescence takes place without any need to mention an age. The picture of Leonardo di Caprio is put away and:

“I’ll bury my dreams of our life together

Bury them along worth my dreams of my day in the sun

Bury them way down deep in a bottomless grave

I feel angry

Always, always angry”

The conflicted feelings that will characterise her relationships are already evident with her first boyfriend, Jorge: “Jorge is all I want,” she tells us, but at the same time: “That’s probably why I want him to hate me so much.” Her life progresses in chapters that count up from zero – does this represent some event that changed her? By chapter 2 she is an adult, living in Oslo and working in a nursery. She soon quits the job, her feelings for the children suggesting something missing in her own childhood, or that she wishes to return to it:

“I feel myself getting annoyed at the children, well-fed and comfortable and wrapped up in arm blankets

I want those things for me”

She finds it difficult to keep any job such is her distaste for rules or expectations, she increasingly loses self-control (“I scream at one woman on the tram”), and soon she is hardly leaving the house. She becomes detached from life:

“I don’t cry anymore

Nothing feels sad

Like déjà vu”

It isn’t long before she experiences her first incarceration in a psychiatric ward, where she continues to rebel,  and often uses sex to do so:

“I sunbathe topless later that day trying to turn him on”

There is something attractive about her refusal to be cowed, but the damage she continues to perpetrate on her own life is obvious. When, months later, she is released, she soon stops taking her medication. She applies to drama school and becomes very focused on the audition but afterwards she cannot remember what happened:

“Everything turns black

I don’t remember a single thing that happens before I leave the stage”

Just as the narrator has no escape from her condition so we are unable to escape from the relentless distress of the narrative, as she becomes caught in a cycle of deteriorating relationships and hospital admissions. The narrative voice is completely convincing and carries the action without ever allowing us a glimpse of anything outside her consciousness, as if we, too, were imprisoned. Then, towards the end, it takes an even stranger turn with a trip to Peru which we are likely to assume takes place entirely in her head, ‘trip’ conveying more than one meaning. While there she is subject to even more traumatic experiences – or is she replaying a childhood trauma within this story? The final page may even suggest a form of hope – though it is likely that every reader will have to decide this for themselves.

Zero is a difficult book to live inside – and its narrative all but demands that we inhabit it – but the experience acquaints us with the feeling of mental breakdown in a direct and unmitigated way. Whether its achievement goes beyond that will perhaps depend on what each reader is prepared to take from their time spent with the novel, and how they interpret its ambiguous conclusion.

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6 Responses to “Zero”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    This does sound very dark, Grant, but clever. It’s a skill I think to be able to convey this kind of narrator well and convince the reader they’re inside the character’s head. I think I might have to be sure I was in a very level-headed place myself first if I was going to read it!

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    This does sound very effective, an excellent combination of style, sentence structure and form. It’s interesting to see a refence to the Tarjei Vesaas First Book Award on the front cover. Not a prize I’ve come across in the past! How about you?

    • 1streading Says:

      No, it’s a new one to me as well. Nordisk Books was specifically set up to publish books which aren’t crime fiction which is, I suppose, what we generally associate with Scandinavia these days, so perhaps they are looking at award winners.

  3. winstonsdad Says:

    a tough read i liked the fragile nature of the prose

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