Is Mother Dead

Superficially, Vigdis Hjorth’s latest novel Is Mother Dead (again translated by Charlotte Barslund) has much in common with Will and Testament. Here is another dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship (interestingly, Hjorth has an as-yet-untranslated novel entitled What’s Wrong with Mother) where contact has been broken off and attempts at reconciliation seem difficult, if not impossible. In this case, however, it is the disowned daughter, Johanna, who determines to repair her relationship with her mother having returned to Norway from America after the death of her husband. Her father is dead, and she blames her sister, Ruth, for preventing her mother replying to her messages. (At this point we may well remember that Hjorth’s sister wrote her own novel in response to Will and Testament “in which a character suffers the trauma of living with the public fallout from a narcissistic sibling’s “dishonest” autobiographical novel.”)

The story is told from Johanna’s point of view, and she admits that the original rupture occurred as a result of her actions:

“The situation was of my own making. I had chosen to leave my marriage, my family and my country almost three decades before, although it hadn’t felt as if I had choice.”

The sense of not having a choice relates to her vocation as a painter, a talent that was initially encouraged by her mother. When Johanna is asked to draw the school’s Constitution Day invitation as she “has a talent for drawing”, her mother whispers to her, “That’s what I’ve been saying all along.” It is her father Johanna blames for stifling her ambition – she imagines:

“Mum had told Dad I had a talent for drawing, but Dad had disagreed.”

When she leaves school, she studies law like her father rather than art. Looking back to her mother’s fiftieth birthday party she remembers:

“…how I struggled to breath, the knot in my stomach I always had on such occasions when the family showed its public face, the feeling of having had script thrust at me, the expectation that I would play my part, the loyal daughter of a lawyer, the wife of a lawyer, the law student, I was ill at ease with this role…”

It is only when she falls in love with her American tutor, Mark, at a water-colour painting evening class, that she sees the chance to live the life she wants and takes it. Even then, after she moves to America, there is still some contact, but the exhibition of her artwork Child and Mother 1 and 2 in Oslo is seen as an attack by her family:

“Ruth’s occasional messages and Mum’s seasonal greetings ceased.”

Even more unforgivably, when her father dies, she does not attend his funeral. Just as she placed the blame on her father when he was alive, Johanna now regards her sister as the barrier between her and her mother – she tells herself that if her Mum had asked her to come home when her father was ill she would have, and that it is Ruth who has blocked her number on her Mum’s phone. She is, at least, self-aware enough to admit, “I blame Ruth so that Mum can go free, it’s simpler that way.”

Whether Johanna’s version of events is entirely reliable is, of course, a question that the reader will increasingly ask themselves. The novel is told in a series of short chapters, some only a sentence or two long, and its entire focus is Johanna’s relationship with her mother. This gives an impression of monomania in stark contrast to her years of detachment. We learn that Mark has recently died and that their son has moved to Europe – events which may make the reader speculate as to both Johanna’s motivation and state of mind. There are also indications that her reactions can be extreme, as for example:

“I had thought from an early age that Dad wasn’t my father.”

The unanswered phone calls from the novel’s opening pages develop into hours spent sitting in her car outside her mother’s apartment – in fact, her behaviour takes on the aspect of a stalker. She remains convinced that her mother feels the same way:

“I live a secret life in Mum’s mind and Mum lives a secret one in mine, but I’m in the process of unearthing her from the darkness, dragging her out into the light, and slowly she emerges because I want it to happen.”

Is Mother Dead could be regarded as a companion piece to Will and Testament. In the latter it is Bergjlot’s decision to break off ties with her family (“the thought of never having to see them again gave me instant relief”); here, Johanna wishes to renew them. In both cases Hjorth powerfully exposes the cracks and fissures which divide families and the desperate remedies we adopt to either paper them over or peer inside.


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7 Responses to “Is Mother Dead”

  1. MarinaSofia Says:

    I’m currently reading Will and Testament and am finding it quite disturbing. Not sure if I can bear another in that vein, although I am fascinated by problematic mother/daughter relationships.

    • 1streading Says:

      I can see why you wouldn’t want to read one after the other but they do make for an interesting comparison. Long Live the Post Horn is quite different so I had the advantage of reading that in between!

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    Just skimming your review for now, Grant, as I may well decide to read the book itself at some point, and I’d rather not know too much in advance. It definitely fits into my interest in the mother-daughter dynamic – like Marina, I’m drawn to this topic in fiction (and non-fiction too, for that matter)!

    • 1streading Says:

      I think you would like this one – you begin quite sympathetic to the daughter but become less so as the novel progresses – a bit like My Phantoms.

  3. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    I’ve only read her Long Live The Post Horn! which I did love. Would like to read more, though sounds quite heavy going topic wise. She does seem drawn to difficult family dynamics!

    • 1streading Says:

      The topic is heavy going but it doesn’t feel that way reading it. I’ve still to read a House in Norway so it will be interesting to see how that compares.

  4. bookbii Says:

    Oh this sounds like a powerful read. I love books that are fragmentary, with short chapters and brief, tantalising vignettes. This sounds quite successful and thought provoking. Great review.

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