Winter Stories

Although Norwegian writer Ingvild Rishoi’s first novel was published this year, she has largely been known as a writer of short stories. Winter Stories was her third collection, originally released in 2014 and translated into English by Diane Oatley in 2019 for Seagull Books. It contains only three stories, each focusing on a character at the end of their tether: the mother who can’t afford the bus fare home; the father recently released from prison; and the sister who fears she will be separated from her siblings.  In each one Rishoi captures the desperation of the characters and their determination to do right by others in difficult circumstances.

The title of the opening story, ‘We Can’t Help Everybody’ feels, in the wider context of the collection, like an accusation. In the story itself, however, it is a concept the narrator finds difficult to explain to her five-year-old daughter, Alexa, when they pass a man begging. In fact, it is their poverty that prevents them from even helping themselves:

“Because there is no such thing as small change.”

The narrator knows her daughter has wet herself and is now walking home uncomfortably in the cold, but she cannot afford the bus fare, nor does she want to dodge the fare with her daughter present. Soon, however, she cannot bear to watch Alexa “walking with her legs spread apart” and it is as they return to the bus stop that they pass the beggar. Again they return, as she does not want to disappoint her daughter with her lack of charity, but she accidentally gives the man 20-kroner coin instead of a ten:

“It’s a 20-kroner coin.

“I was going to give him a tenner,

“But it’s too late now.

“I gave away 20 kroner.”

The short sentence paragraphs convey her desperation, the disbelief as she struggles to comprehend what she has done, and its effect on her ability to help her daughter. Eventually she decides to buy her new underwear, but she has underestimated the cost. The story contrasts the child’s innocence with the mother’s hard-won experience, but that experience only makes her doubt and worry, whereas Alexa’s innocence, at least in her mother’s eyes means that she is always right. When they go into the store Alexa goes over to a Christmas tree:

“And I know this was right in a way that nothing was right before.”

Her mother uses her as guide but in order to do so she has to protect her simpler ideals. On another level, of course, the story simply questions why anyone should not be able to afford bus fare or clean underwear for their child.

In the second story, ‘The Right Thomas’, we find a father wishing to make a good impression on his son who is coming to stay with him. We see him reading a recipe “because at six o’clock the food has to be ready and I’ll open the door and Leon will jump into my arms…” Leon is the result of a one night stand between two people from different very different backgrounds. In the morning Thomas finds himself reading the newspaper and listening to classical music:

“Ladies like that. Radio stations like that. I didn’t even know they existed.”

When the woman, Live, discovers she is pregnant she contacts Thomas – she wants him to be part of her son’s life, but Thomas can’t understand why that doesn’t mean he is part of her life. Now the visit is taking place after he has spent some time in prison. His determination to be a good father conflicts with his lack of belief in his ability to do so – even buying a pillow for his son becomes a task too far. Thomas, in a different way from Alexa, is also innocent. The story balances on a knife edge of whether the visit will take place or whether Thomas will lose faith in himself as a father.

Having witnessed the innocence of childhood and adulthood, in the third story, ‘Siblings’, the innocent narrator is a teenager. The story opens with her taking her younger siblings on a bus, and we soon learn she is running away with them. They are heading to a cabin where she once holidayed with a friend, Cecilie, in summer – though this is a much more dangerous journey in winter. Cecilie had briefly transformed the narrator’s life:

“It was that spring. The pigeons kept flying and I got such good grades suddenly, Bs and As and Bs again, my French quizzes were full of smiley faces…”

On the holiday, however, Cecilie tells her she is leaving for England:

“How could she leave me when I could never leave her.”

Though more subtly, the issue here is also class: for Cecilie the transfer to another country is unremarkable, for the narrator impossible. Her life now heads in the opposite direction, and she fears being separated from her brother and sister despite being the main carer. This back story is juxtaposed by the siblings’ perilous journey through the snow.

Despite the bleakness of the situations the characters find themselves in, however, all three stories also offer kindness. But what makes them so powerful is the way in which Rishoi’s inhabits her characters, her perceptive portrayal of their struggles, and, above all, the way in which they continue to hope against all odds.

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6 Responses to “Winter Stories”

  1. roughghosts Says:

    Thanks for this review, Grant. I remember looking at this but for some reason I didn’t follow up. Somehow I think “winter” books seem out of place at other times of the year. But it’s -32C outside as I type this, so your review caught my eye. Actually, I’m planning to read some of the Norwegian books I have this winter which as really turned into an excuse to buy more. Funny that.

    • 1streading Says:

      It will be interesting to see what Norwegian writers you read – I look forward to reading about it! I actually came across this via a tweet praising the writer in the original language and a quick Google revealed this was soon to be published!

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    I love the cover of this book. It would catch my eye on a bookshop shelf or table, I’m sure. And it’s good to hear there’s some kindness amidst the bleakness here – we need that balance more than ever right now…

  3. Books of the Year 2021 Part 3 | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] Rishoi’s only book to have been translated into English (by Diane Oatley), Winter Stories is a collection of three breath-taking stories. Each one features a character at breaking point. In […]

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