Peirene’s second novel in this year’s coming of age series was The Blue Room by Hanne Orstavik translated by Deborah Dawkin. It would be fair to say that The Blue Room has made a powerful impression among those who have read it, as many online reviews will testify. The story it tells at first seems simple enough: the narrator, Johanne, a young woman who lives with her apparently over-protective mother awakes on the day she has chosen to go to America with her new (and perhaps only) boyfriend, Ivar, to find herself locked in her room. In the course of the novella she recounts the development of her relationship with Ivar, but indications that her version of events may not be entirely trustworthy soon begin to appear.
We get a glimpse of Orstavik’s writing method early on when Johanne recalls a lecture about “the isomorphic functioning of the brain”:
“When the senses only pick up fragments, our brain fills in the gaps to achieve wholeness and harmony.”
As with any first person narration we are aware we are not getting the whole story, but our brains fill in the ‘gaps’ fairly easily at first, especially as the possessive mother is a stock character, made more credible when Johanne reveals her religious leanings. Orstavik then inserts images that do not belong into the pattern our brains have created and, all of a sudden, our belief that we can fill in the gaps is undermined and we begin to question everything we have been told. This first happens just after Johanne has remembered her initial meeting with Ivar:
“I close my eyes. There’s an Asian girl chained to the bed. Twelve years old. It is an iron bed with rails and there are bars at the window. A fat sweaty man comes once an hour, He takes off his shorts and shirt, and she has to do whatever he wants.”
What she sees becomes more sexually explicit but with details provided to repulse rather than titivate. It provokes in the reader (or this reader at least) what would be in cartoon terms a double-take, a re-reading to check you haven’t accidentally fallen into another narrative – for narrative, rather than image, it is, with Johanne’s desire to “imagine what it’s like to be there” entirely unexplained. The setting might be the similar: both naked, in a room with a bed and a window, the girl chained, Johanne locked in, but the connection is mysterious.
These violent fantasies are in some way linked to her relationship with her mother. “Men are so simple,” she tells her daughter, “Controlled by sex and power,” while at the same time warning her against “dangerous” men. Her mother’s own previous relationships are alluded to:
“Her experience will prevent me from marrying a man who lacks boundaries, self-control and sensitivity.”
No father is mentioned and Johanne’s brother is, we are told, in America. Of her mother she says at one point, “She’s been through so much.” Yet if the mother is the controlling partner of the relationship, we might wonder why she says to Johanne, “I just can’t stand any more manipulation.” Though, of course, this could be manipulative.
Johanne’s confidence in herself is certainly lacking:
“I have something lacking, a flaw. I have a hole out of which all my strength seems to drain.”
In her relationship with her mother, with Ivar, and with her friend Karin, she seems both devoted and dependent. We might suspect that she is equally culpable in reliance on her mother:
“She’s right, I thought, we belong together like two clasped hands.”
And later, when she wishes she could be an architectural drawing:
“Then we could each spread our sheets on top of each other, Mum and I, and see where our lines diverged. And we could take an eraser and adjust them to match.”
What we have, then, is a particularly sophisticated version of the unreliable narrator: almost everything in the narrative is up for question but there is little that we can say for certain is untrue. The Blue Room is a character study where the character remains unknowable (like the ‘black box’ Johanne mentions in reference to another experiment); the exploration of a relationship where we cannot be sure, even at the end, how much we understand; a discussion of sexual desire that both celebrates and condemns. The final question it leaves us with is this, though:
How can a writer this good not be known to an English-speaking audience?