Ida Jessen is an author I discovered last year thanks to her wonderful novel A Change of Time published by Archipelago Books, a book about how a woman re-invents herself after the death of her husband. It found a place on My Best Books of 2021 list, hence I was excited about the release of her short story collection, A Postcard for Annie, and I’m glad to say that it is superb.
A Postcard for Annie is a quiet, exquisite collection of short stories of ordinary lives; the highs and lows of marriage and family life told in lucid, restrained prose suffused with great emotional depth.
There are six stories in this collection, which makes it easier to give a flavour of each of these tales and the themes depicted within.
The first piece titled “An Excursion” is a beautiful story of a marriage, of how it changes people, of the ties that bind couples despite their differences. It’s a tale that flits between two timelines, the present, when our protagonist Tove, after a heated exchange with her husband, goes off for a long walk to clear her head and calm down and the past revealed to us through a series of flashbacks which tells us how she first met Max and the course of their marriage thereafter. In a town, where the residents are trying to survive in the aftermath of a financial crisis, Tove runs a business of her own – “Tove had set herself up selling curtain materials, but had gradually moved into buying up old furniture she reupholstered before selling on.”
One day, along with her friend Larna, she visits a big antique fair in Odense hoping to spot some furniture classics that she can buy. While perusing a slew of items she comes across a yellow floor vase, struck by the vividness of the colour.
It was the colour that had prompted her to stop. Ever since she was a little girl she had hovered over that same colour with a love so powerful it felt like a vice, and so very private to her. Even now, in the home she had made as an adult, she possessed very little that was yellow, as if she was afraid of overdosing, just as she would only rarely go to her doctor, fearing herself at bottom to be a hypochondriac.
The price is too expensive and she almost gives up until a voice in her ear convinces her to do otherwise. That person would turn out to be her future husband Max, and after the first few years of intense feelings for one another, cracks in their marriage begin to develop. Max is a fussy, meticulous person who likes planning and order; in sharp contrast Tove is more spontaneous reveling in the joy of discovery rather than any form of structured thinking.
He studied websites, catalogues and books, so as not to be caught off guard. Unlike her, when they went out bargain hunting together he never bought anything he hadn’t decided on beforehand…She tried to explain to him that it was the very sense of being caught off guard that was exciting to her. Getting carried away. He told her she was pandering to a throwaway culture, that it was bad taste and he expected her to learn from his example. With a swagger she told him not to count on it.
As the tale unfolds at a languid pace, we learn of arguments that often flare up between Tove and Max, another personal development that hits her hard, a random encounter with a stranger and memories of a woman from Tove’s past whose persona alters significantly after marriage; and in the midst of all this, there are moments when Tove often contemplates divorce but eventually does nothing about it.
And what about her? Where did her energy come from? Where did she find what it took to want to be alive?
It came from hoping, it was as straightforward as that. But her hope was not yet a bright song of spring. It was a deep bass tone that followed her around. Even when it was barely audible it was still there, at the bottom of things. If she listened only superficially, she would have thought it was grief.
“December is a Cruel Month” is a heartbreaking story on grief, loss, the tender and often tense relationships between parents and their children. Here’s how the story begins…
It was the tenth of December, early evening. The time was twenty minutes to seven and the Co-op had closed. The delivery boy had gone home, the till ladies had gone home, the store manager had gone home. But the lights were still on inside. The girls’ mother hadn’t gone home.
The mother is all set to close up and head home, but then notices the refrigerator where blood from the meat stored inside has seeped onto the floor. The mother decides to clean up the mess before shutting shop, which automatically means that she would arrive home later than usual.
Since her husband is also compelled to work that evening, the woman’s daughters are all alone home engrossed in craftwork – “Marianne, who was eight years old, the eldest and cleverest of the two, had learned how to fold stars. Hanne, five, was glueing paper chains.”
When the mother fails to arrive at her usual time, Marianne is disconcerted and decides to walk all the way to the Co-op to find out why she has been held up. Hanne tags along. The mother chides them for leaving the house, telling them to run along, that she would join them shortly. The girls deliberately take a longer detour on their way home, gazing with wonder at the brightly lit shops dotting the streets, confident that once they are home their mother will be there waiting. But she never returns.
Running parallel to this story is that of the Knudsens – husband and wife who run the Co-op store where the mother works. We learn that the Knudsens are a respected couple who go about their lives with a calm demeanor, but inwardly they despair at the doings of their wayward son. These two storylines then collide and the Knudsens are confronted with a tough decision.
The titular story, “A Postcard for Annie” is another dark, evocative piece on mental illness, chance encounters, the unexpected blossoming of love and its subsequent pitfalls. Mie is a young woman of nineteen staying in a room she shares with two other women, Bodil and Annie; a room she has grown fond of, “from where when she opened her dormer window, leaned over the sill, and poked her head out, she could see the red rooftops of Trojborg, the woods and the bay of Aarhus Bugt.”
One day, while waiting for a bus, the sight of a woman clad in a nightgown and slippers traversing the streets in the freezing cold greatly disconcerts Mie and her attempts to help the woman end in naught. Subsequently, a tragic accident follows which affects Mie deeply and she is further distraught when a young man she had noticed waiting at the same bus stop, harshly judges her for her actions or lack of them. She walks off from him in a huff, but then Mie is gripped by the power of making a sudden decision – will it turn out to be a good sign or a misguided step?
“Mother and Son”, my favourite of the lot, focuses its lens on a troubled mother-son relationship highlighted by an atmosphere of menace and suspense.
And now this evening, sitting with her family in the kitchen, with her husband, Thomas, and their fourteen-year-old youngest son, Esben, and with Malthe, the eldest at twenty, who has come to visit. It’s not often the four of them are all together. Theirs is a fatigued family, familiar with misfortune, but Lisbet’s love springs forth at the slightest opportunity and flushed with food and wine she can’t help herself from touching her sons, even though she knows they’ll pull away.
Malthe is at that difficult age where he is adult enough to decide for himself how he wants to lead his life, and yet Lisbeth cannot pull away, she often frets. Malthe is a cocky, aggressive young man, rude to his autistic younger brother, disrespectful towards his father and often locked in heated verbal exchanges with Lisbeth who relentlessly pounds him with questions.
Malthe, being restless, is unable to stick to a job for long, much to the frustration of Thomas and Lisbeth, but he is their eldest son and Lisbeth loves him. In one of their many fraught conversations, Lisbeth is horrified to realize that Malthe has unwittingly involved himself in a particularly unsavoury situation and she agonizes over its possible consequences.
In an “An Argument”, a married woman, as the title suggests, argues with her husband on how the physical intimacy between them has deteriorated, while “In My Hometown”, the last story in the collection, is a short piece told in the first person about village secrets, the private lives that people lead and how we don’t know people as well as we think we do.
These are chronicles of troubled marriages featuring aloof husbands and lonely wives; of imperfect families burdened with good-for-nothing sons; of imprudent decisions, thwarted desires, complex parent-child bonds underlined by fiery exchanges, and love and desire in its myriad guises…piercing, understated stories that surprise the reader because they unfurl in unexpected ways.
One of the striking themes of this collection is the passage of time; an aspect that is depicted by the seamless jumps in time periods in the narratives – a story might begin in the present and a series of flashbacks take us back to the characters’ past; or a paragraph might end at a crucial juncture in the present, the reader is not sure where he/she is being led, and in the next paragraph we find that the story has taken a leap forward by many years with the happenings in the intervening years outlined in a few sentences.
Each of these six tales are drenched with a quiet beauty, marked by the author’s penetrating gaze into her characters’ outer lives and their innermost feelings; characters who display an outward exterior of eerie calm akin to the surface of a glassy, pristine lake that hides the raging currents and turmoil underneath. These are ordinary people who wrestle with a gamut of emotions – anger, frustration, grief, worry, despair often alternating with love in its many avatars, joy and desire.
A Postcard for Annie, then, is a wonderful book with its nuanced, subtle portrayal of themes often reminding us that life is not always perfect and how the act of compromise, unique to every form of relationship, is what ultimately compels us to move on.