Posts Tagged ‘hanne orstavik’


September 3, 2018

Hanne Orstavik’s The Blue Room remains one of my favourite Peirene Press titles, an unsettling exploration of a mother-daughter relationship. Four years on another of Orstavik’s short novels, Love, has belatedly appeared in English (this time translated by Martin Aitken). It, too, focuses on a mother and child, though, if The Blue Room suggested an over-bearing, over-protective mother, Love presents us with something quite different.

Even in its opening chapter there seems to be a disconnect between Vibeke and her son, Jon. While he eagerly awaits her return from work, she enters the house without giving him a thought. We know this as Orstavik presents the narrative from both Vibeke and Jon’s point of view, moving between them from paragraph to paragraph. This technique will be important later when the characters separate, but even here seems designed to demonstrate their apartness. Though she is home, Vibeke has little thought for Jon, but continues to think about work and “the brown-eyed engineer” who “had smiled at her at several points in the presentation.” That he is on her mind is obvious when she sees the tail lights of a car disappearing:

“The engineer, she thinks, perhaps it was him.”

As a single mother, exhausted after a day’s work, her daydreams are perhaps excusable, and even her impatience with her son when, though speaking to him kindly:

“Can’t you just go, she thinks to herself. Find something to do, play or something?”

As Jon leaves to sell raffle tickets for the sports club he has joined (the two of them are recent arrivals in the village, with a back story only vaguely hinted at), Vibeke is, again, elsewhere (“To go with a dark, brown-eyed man, she thinks with a little smile.”) She bathes herself in preparation for a night out while Jon endures a number of strange encounters beginning with an old man inviting him into his basement. These encounters, with various strangers, seem designed to suggest a series of possible dangers to an adult perspective, while at the same time conveying the essential strangeness of childhood where so many experiences are new. (Take, for example, the teenage girl who invites him in to listen to music and then fall asleep).

It’s a strangeness which, admittedly on the basis of two books, seems typical of Orstvik’s work, making the mundane appear almost surreal. It’s echoed in the white haired woman whom Vibeke meets at the fair (where she has gone without Jon, seemingly satisfied “most likely he’s doing something in his room”):

“The woman dressed in white stand so on a little platform that runs along the front of the stall, surveying the fairground… Vibeke sees her face is powdered white, her lips too. She picks a ticket and pays the woman what she says they cost.”

The woman in white will haunt the novel, like a ghost in both her appearance and ability to appear. Her unspecified connection to the man Vibeke meets at the fair, Tom, gives her an enhanced sense of threat. While Vibeke is with Tom, Jon arrives back home to find himself without his key. Noticing the car is missing, he assumes that his mother must be preparing for his birthday the next day:

“Maybe she’s run out of something for the cake, he thinks. Eggs, maybe, or flour, and now she’s popped out to borrow some. That’ll be it.”

The narratives are now so divergent that it is possible to wonder if Jon exists. Could Vibeke really have forgotten about his birthday, or, indeed, about him?

It is likely that sympathy for Vibeke will vary from reader to reader. Her loneliness is evident, though the vagueness of her backstory suggests Orstavik wishes her to be judge on the actions of one night. The ending is particularly ominous: although Jon has escaped the potential hazards of strangers, he remains outside on a night which Orstavik has repeatedly emphasised as cold.

Just like The Blue Room, Love is a disturbing novel which forces us to re-evaluate the assumption of a natural bond between mother and child, and therefore our idea of love. Orstavik is a writer who fearlessly transcribes the terrifying in the everyday.

The Blue Room

September 6, 2014

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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?