Ties – Domenico Starnone (tr. Jhumpa Lahiri)

I became aware of Domenico Starnone a few years ago when I heard that his novels were being translated from the Italian by Jhumpa Lahiri whose short stories I had loved many years ago, and whose latest novel Whereabouts is most likely to feature among my favourite novels this year. Wanting to finally read him, I picked out Ties, a novel which I thought was brutal but also impressive.

In case it’s slipped your mind, Dear Sir, let me remind you: I am your wife. I know that this once pleased you and that now, suddenly, it chafes.

Thus begins Ties, a visceral, intense story of a marital breakdown and its damaging consequences for the parties involved, cleverly told through multiple perspectives.

The first section is where Vanda is writing to her husband, and it’s a letter that drips with rage, fury and frustration at him for abandoning their family and shirking his responsibilities of a husband and father.

We learn that Aldo, the husband, has given vague reasons for suddenly leaving for another woman – he feels trapped, desires freedom and the option of living life on his own terms. The defined boundaries of marriage and fatherhood are tying him down leaving no room to breathe. Vanda, however, is buying none of this nonsense, and rants at him in her writings. She accuses him of being a weak and confused man, insensitive and superficial. Aldo, meanwhile, vehemently describes his relationship with Lidia as purely physical, but Vanda believes he is lying. Deeply hurt and struggling to come to terms with her sense of abandonment, Vanda makes it clear to him that she is cutting off his access to their children.

In Section Two, several years have passed. Aldo and Vanda are now an old couple, they are together but it’s a delicately balanced existence – the fissure in their marriage hasn’t entirely disappeared, and a nudge in the wrong direction, can cause their relations to crack. Their children, Sandro and Anna, are grown up individuals living their own lives away from them. We learn that Aldo has achieved some success as a TV producer and writer but his fame has now dimmed. The couple is comfortable financially, a large part of which is due to Vanda’s obsession with money and finding ways of not indulging in wasteful expenditure.

The second section opens with the two of them going holidaying to the seaside, a vacation that turns out to be perfect, freshening them up considerably. But when Aldo and Vanda return to their apartment, they are in for a rude shock. Their home has been vandalized, and Vanda’s beloved cat Labes is missing. The house is a complete mess with objects strewn everywhere, although strangely no valuables have been stolen.

As Aldo begins to clear up the mess, he chances upon the letters Vanda had written to him all those years ago, and this sets off a chain of memories – his reasons for abandoning the family, his aching love for Lidia and his fragile, uncertain rapport with his children.  The second section is from Aldo’s point of view and he tells us how Vanda’s disintegration disturbed him, how his love for Lidia revived him, giving him a sense of purpose. Ironically, while deep in his relationship with Lidia, he is plagued by the same set of insecurities – that Lidia is likely to abandon him in the same manner that he left Vanda. Aldo eventually does crawl back to his family, but he finds the home atmosphere completely altered.

In Ties, then, Starnone presents to us a scathing but psychologically astute portrayal of marriage, of how one man’s actions can damage the entire family unit. The writing style is spare, furiously paced and intense especially when analyzing the characters’ motives. While betrayal and marital discord are its dominant themes, the novella is also a subtle exploration of love, parenting and the passage of time. In her fascinating introduction, Jhumpa Lahiri makes an illuminating point about how boundaries, structures, containers are symbols depicted in this novel both literally and figuratively. Structures provide a safe space but can also heighten feelings of entrapment. Boundaries limit chaos, but things can keep breaking down anyway.

Interestingly, the multiple perspectives give a sense of how there is never only one guilty party, of how in a marriage there are always two sides to the story. When we read the first section, we feel for Vanda because of the terrible treatment meted out to her, the insensitiveness and cowardice of Aldo. But as the book progresses, we realize that while Vanda is the wronged woman, she is no saint. She puts Aldo on a tight leash with the result that their relationship transforms into one of tyrant and slave. She is the one calling all the shots, and his opinions don’t matter. Even though Aldo’s actions have set their marriage on a downward spiral, one can’t help but sympathize with him for the way he is punished by Vanda.

And what of the children? In the third section, we are privy to their points of view…they are now middle-aged adults but the kind of lives they have chosen to lead gives a perspective of how damaged they have become thanks to the bitterness of their parents’ marriage.

He’d given up me, you, Mom. And I quickly realized he’d done the right thing. Away, away, away. Our mother, to him, was the negation of the joy of living, and us too, you and me. Don’t fool yourself, that’s what we were, the negation, the negation. His real mistake was being unable to give us up for good. His mistake was that once you’ve taken action to hurt people profoundly, to kill or, in any case, permanently devastate other human beings, you can’t go back. You have to accept responsibility for the crime through and through. You can’t commit a half-crime.

This excellent novella, finally, ends on a satisfying note and while the mystery of their parents’ ransacked home is resolved, there is a sense that the future will always be in a state of flux.

I must mention that I felt a sense of déjà vu when reading Vanda’s section and realized there are striking similarities with Elena Ferrante’s novel, The Days of Abandonment – the wife ditched by the husband for another woman, the rage seething within her, the burden she bears of caring for the children and the household singlehandedly and her gradual descent into despair. But Ties for me was the more interesting and therefore better novel because we are also presented with Aldo and the children’s points of view, which was the not the case with the Ferrante novel where we were only inside Olga’s head.

Ties, then, is an excellent reminder of how love, trust and respect are the foundations of a good marriage, and the complications that can arise from the lack of any of these attributes. Children, especially, are often caught between a rock and a hard place. Divorce is one option, but often frowned upon because of its negative consequences for children. But the logic of “sticking together for the sake of the kids” is deeply flawed too. Children in their own ways are perceptive and can sense the discord between their parents. They become subconsciously aware of the need to tread carefully so as to maintain that delicate balance in their homes. Sadly, this unbearable burden and the underlying guilt can often affect them too. There are no easy answers!

Ramifications – Daniel Saldaña París (tr. Christina MacSweeney)

Ramifications is another interesting offering from Charco Press, which specializes in literature from Latin America and has doled out gems such as Dead Girls by Selva Almada, Fish Soup by Margarita Garcia Robayo and The German Room by Carla Maliandi.

The memories we return to most frequently are the most inaccurate, the least faithful to reality…

Set in Mexico, Ramifications is a moving portrait of arrested development, a tale of a boy growing up in a broken family and trying to survive in an environment where machismo and secrecy rule the roost.

First I have to write the story through to the end, fill this spiral-bound notebook with my scribblings to the very last page, drop it by the bed, open the next notebook, and continue writing until that one, too, is full. Not because writing is an act of salvation, but because there’s no other way I can tell myself the things I don’t even dare think when I’m alone. Only when I’ve written it all down will I be able to look at myself in the mirror and not see the face of someone else, the other that stalks me from within.

Our unnamed narrator begins his story by highlighting a defining event in his childhood, a development which pretty much dictates how the rest of his life pans out – his mother abandons their family to move to Chiapas. A woman aspiring for greater heights, she feels stifled by the drudgery of an abusive marriage and motherhood. Participating in the Zapatista movement (the uprising that shook Mexico in 1994) appears to her as the perfect outlet to refocus her energies.

Meanwhile, our narrator, his father and his elder sister Mariana are left to fend for themselves and come to terms with this loss. The father, emotionally distant, has not much clue about running a household and bringing up children. The role of caring for the boy falls on Mariana, who is much more interested in her social life. Thus, the narrator, who is aged ten at the time, is largely left to his own devices and to his own thoughts of which plenty abound. He takes refuge in making origami figures although he has no talent for it, and spends days reading Choose Your Own Adventure books and hiding in his Zero Luminosity Capsule (which is nothing but his wardrobe). Beset by aching loneliness, he is prone to concocting various imaginary scenarios that entail his mother returning to the family.

Trying to comprehend his mother’s abandonment forms the central focus of this narrative. Gradually, a portrait of the family is revealed to us – how the parents have different political ideologies, the mother has a rebellious outlook and detests her husband for his far right views. The father is also a man prone to violent bursts of temper, raging and ranting.

The narrator is a misfit in school too. Suffering the consequences of his mother’s actions, he is trolled and bullied mercilessly. The school, which he once considered a refuge from the toxic atmosphere at home, is no longer so. It’s as if the two environs have blurred and merged into one.

Daniel Saldana’s storytelling is not linear and there are a plethora of stark focal points in the narrator’s life that stand out like beams in the dark – his mother’s disappearance, her death around six months later (we learn of this in the opening chapter too), his father’s inability to form a close bond with his children and his subsequent death by cancer, and how the siblings thereafter construct their own lives.

While the tone of the novel is largely reflective, certain moments instill a creeping sense of dread. A set-piece in the middle of the book, particularly, injects a kind of tension to the tale. Just months after his mother disappears, our narrator decides to hunt for her in Chiapas and boards a bus alone. In the middle of the night, the bus is stopped by soldiers and the narrator is struck by immense terror when he and some passengers are randomly questioned.

Now in his early thirties, the narrator has cut himself from the world, spends most of this time in bed, and unfolds his memories, trying to come to terms with events that shaped his childhood and the subsequent years.

Memory, loss, grief, masculinity and revolution are some of the dominant themes that are touched upon. Reflections on memory run consistently throughout the book…

Memories are fabrications that bear little relationship to their supposed origins, and each and every time we recall something, that memory becomes more autonomous, more detached from the past, as if the cord holding it to life itself is fraying until one day, it snaps and the memory bolts, runs free through the fallow field of the spirit, like a liberated goat taking to the hills.

Grief and coping with loss is also central to the narrative. Our narrator finds solace in his strange rituals, but they only serve to alienate him further from those around him. Grappling with expected norms of masculinity is another thread that weaves the story together. Our narrator desperately yearns to resemble his mother both in looks and temperament, and is dejected to learn that he is increasingly turning into his father. The shattering impact of the revolution (which in the book is in the background) on the family unit also forms an essence of the novel.

Ramifications, then, is a poignant depiction of a child’s attempts to interpret events beyond his understanding. Saldaña París’ writing is simple and elegant and there’s almost a fairy tale like quality to the prose as we are taken inside the tormented psyche of a child. Despite a few places where the pace drags a bit, it is overall a strong read and the final allusion to the truth of his mother’s death gives the reader a lot to think about.

Cheerful Weather for the Wedding – Julia Strachey

I have had a good run with Persephone Books this year having read Every Eye by Isobel English and Earth and High Heaven by Gwethalyn Graham – both excellent. Now, after finishing the wonderful Cheerful Weather for the Wedding by Julia Strachey (for #NovNov), it feels like I have scored a Persephone hat-trick.

Cheerful Weather for the Wedding is a funny and beautifully written novella focusing on a dysfunctional, miscellaneous group of people thrown together, and sizzles with acerbic observations and dramatic revelations. It was originally published by Hogarth Press, founded by Leonard and Virginia Woolf.

The book is set during the course of a single day at the centre of which is the wedding of our protagonist, 23-year old Dolly Thatcham. The wedding is set to take place in a church close to the Thatcham estate in the country.

When the book opens, the guests have begun to assemble at the Thatcham residence and all the last minute preparations are in full swing. We are told that following a short engagement of about a month, Dolly is to be betrothed to Owen Bigham, who is eight years elder to her. Post the wedding, the couple plans to relocate to South America.

Meanwhile, the reader is introduced to an eccentric cast of characters comprising Mrs Thatcham, her other daughter Kitty, the various maids and a few ill-assorted guests.  Mrs Thatcham immediately comes across as a woman indifferent to her surroundings, a tad muddled, seemingly out of touch with reality. She insists that the weather is fine for the wedding, when it is actually a cold, gray day in March with a strong wind blowing. Her maids are at the receiving end of her behaviour – for instance, Mrs Thatcham gives them a precise set of instructions, promptly forgets what she had discussed, and then berates her maids later even though they have followed her orders to the tee. “I simply fail to understand it,” is a refrain she frequently utters.

“Oh! But then Millman must have laid the snack-luncheon in here!” she exclaimed.

There was a silence. Mrs Thatcham stared frigidly at the cutlets and sandwiches.

“How disappointing of Millman!” she said. “She is an odd being, really. So funny of her to do that now! When I told her most particularly the nursery…as we shall want the library kept free…so very odd of her!”

“Not odd at all, Mum. Considering I heard you tell her most particularly yesterday, at tea-time, to be sure and put the cold lunch in the library so as not to have to light a fire in the nursery today.”

We are also introduced to Joseph, likely Dolly’s former beau, who still holds a torch for her. He is hoping to meet her before the wedding with vague intentions of stopping it but with no clear idea of the repercussions. Mrs Thatcham dislikes Joseph, eyeing him as a harbinger of doom.

As both Joseph and Dolly briefly hark back to the past at separate moments, we are given an inkling of the romance that could have possibly blossomed between the two, but which does not come to fruition at that time.

One of the striking features of this novella is that there is so much scope for the reader to read between the lines. Almost all of the characters don’t really reveal what’s exactly on their minds, preferring instead to drop subtle hints. Even in their conversations, the haziness of their feelings persist. All of which leaves a lot of room for us to figure it out ourselves.

There had been a discussion about a certain kind of crackly biscuit made with treacle, and looking like stiff brown lace, called a “jumbly.” “What, never tasted jumbly!” Joseph beside her (Dolly) had said, quite suddenly, peering in underneath her large summer hat. “But you must taste a jumbly! You would adore them!” but the point was, that through his face, and most especially his eyes, Joseph’s whole being had announced, plainly, and with a violent fervor, not “You would adore them,” but “I adore you.”

Dolly’s personality is inherently passive, as she seems okay to just go along with the flow rather than be assertive and take charge. Even though she harbours feelings for Joseph, she chooses not to be forthright about them. And yet she is assailed with doubts on her wedding day, made obvious by the half a bottle of rum she guzzles hours before the ceremony, rendering her slightly drunk.

On top of it all, Dolly’s relationship with her mother is quite strained because of the latter’s detached personality, and even on her wedding day Dolly feels no warmth towards her mother.

Will Dolly, eventually, go through with her decision to marry a man she barely knows? Or will Joseph spoil the wedding party with some tricks up his sleeve?

Julia Strachey’s writing in Cheerful Weather for the Wedding is marvelous, brimming with evocative descriptions – whether it’s the heavily furnished rooms in the house, or the tumult of the characters’ emotions.

Above the writing table where Dolly sat was an ancient mirror.

This mirror was rusted over with tiny specks by the hundred, and also the quicksilver at the back had become blackened in the course of ages, so that the drawing-room, as reflected in its corpse-like face, seemed forever swimming in an eerie, dead-looking, metallic twilight, such as is never experienced in the actual world outside. And a strange effect was produced:

It was as if the drawing-room reappeared in this mirror as a familiar room in a dream reappears, ghostly, significant, and wiped free of all signs of humdrum and trivial existence.

There are generous doses of sly humour in the book, with some hilarious set-pieces particularly in the first few pages when the wedding guests mingle with one another, and Joseph especially makes it a point to rile Kitty (Dolly’s younger sister).

“How are your lectures going?” asked Kitty of Joseph, a kind of desperate intenseness in her voice and face. This was her style of the moment with the male sex.

“Very well, thank you,” said Joseph, and added: “We heard about the practices of the Minoan Islanders upon reaching the age of puberty at the last one.” He started snapping up his cutlet.

“Oh, really? How terribly interesting!” said Kitty.

“Yes, very. Like to hear about them?” offered Joseph.

Cheerful Weather for the Wedding feels sophisticated and assured as Strachey displays a flair for making nuanced observations on her varied set of characters. A distinct highlight is the novella’s razor sharp focus on the consequences of suppressed emotions and things left unsaid. It’s another gem from Persephone Books well worth reading and re-reading.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle – Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson is an author who has been on my radar for quite some time but whose books I never got around to reading until now. And I am so glad I did.

I started with We Have Always Lived in the Castle, the last novel she wrote and published, and what a fabulous book it turned out to be.

The first chapter in We Have Always Lived in the Castle is brilliant. Here’s how it opens and draws the reader in…

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.

Mary Katherine (Merricat) Blackwood is walking to the village to borrow books from the library and buy supplies from the grocery store. Merricat lives on Blackwood Farm with her elder sister Constance and their Uncle Julian. Constance is uncomfortable going beyond the confines of their home (possibly due to agoraphobia) and Uncle Julian is quite frail both physically and mentally.

So the task of doing the grocery shopping falls on Merricat. It is a ritual she follows every week, but not something that she enjoys doing. The reason is all too clear. She hates bumping into the villagers, who jeer at her and pass comments behind her back. The children are even worse as they chant strange rhymes when she walks past.

Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea?

Oh no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me.

Already the reader is aware that something is amiss and feels a bit of the fear that Merricat is experiencing.

Why do the villagers behave the way they do? The answer lies in a gruesome incident that occurred in the Blackwood family six years ago. The sisters’ parents, aunt and younger brother die of arsenic poisoning when having dinner at the family home and Constance is charged for this crime. Merricat is not present then, and Uncle Julian manages to survive.

Due to lack of evidence, Constance is acquitted, but the stigma surrounding the Blackwood sisters remains. Fearing the taunts of people outside, the three of them lead a solitary existence in their home, and rarely mix with outsiders.

Some of the wealthier inhabitants in the village do make the effort keep in touch. One of them is Helen Clarke who visits the sisters every Friday for tea.

The elder sister Constance comes across as a gentle person and keeps herself busy by cleaning the house and cooking scrumptious meals for the family. Uncle Julian is gradually losing his faculties and is obsessed with the details of that fateful day when the Blackwood family was poisoned. He is jotting it all down in his papers hoping to publish it as a book.

But the star of the book is really Merricat. As a narrator, she is very strange and fascinating; traits which are accentuated by her skewed and childlike way of viewing the world at large. For the most part it feels as though we are reading the narrative of a child only to be reminded that Merricat is actually a young adult of eighteen.

Merricat adores Constance and is fiercely protective of their simple and solitary way of living. She indulges in her own make-believe world, a world to which she will one day be transported and find some modicum of safety and happiness. Here she is talking to Constance…

“On the moon we have everything. Lettuce, and pumpkin pie and Amanita phalloides. We have cat-furred plants and horses dancing with their wings. All the locks are solid and tight, and there are no ghosts. On the moon Uncle Julian would be well and the sun would shine every day. You would wear our mother’s pearls and sing, and the sun would shine all the time.”

Her life is made up of routines that involve going to the market, helping Constance with the cleaning, running wild and spending time by herself on the vast family property, the cat Jonas being her only companion.

Merricat’s limited world is made up of superstitions. She believes chanting certain words or smashing mirrors will ward off evil influences on the family. She leaves totems around the family property all in a childish effort to seal the family off from strangers.

On Sunday mornings I examined my safeguards, the box of silver dollars I had buried by the creek, and the doll buried in the long field, and the book nailed to the tree in the pine woods; so long as they were where I had put them nothing could get in to harm us.

Until one day Merricat’s world is shaken up when their cousin Charles Blackwood shows up. This sparks off a chain of events that disrupt the lives of all the three inhabitants of the house.

Charles had only gotten in because the magic was broken; if I could re-seal the protection around Constance and shut Charles out he would have to leave the house. Every touch he made on the house must be erased. 

The two sisters are both different and similar at the same time. Constance in some sense is the grown up as she buries herself in the comfort of preparing meals and doing household chores. Merricat is the untamed one, as she spends considerable time outdoors even sleeping in the woods in her secret hiding place sometimes. And yet they are similar – both shun outside contact, while at the same time find solace in everyday rituals.

All the Blackwood women had taken the food that came from the ground and preserved it, and the deeply coloured rows of jellies and pickles and bottled vegetables and fruit, maroon and amber and dark rich green stood side by side in our cellar and would stand there forever, a poem by the Blackwood women. Each year Constance and Uncle Julian and I had jam or preserve and pickle that Constance had made, but we never touched what belonged to the others; Constance said it would kill us if we ate it.

Even though this is an unsettling novel, Jackson expertly sprinkles doses of dark humour. There are two set pieces which are particularly wonderful and both of them involve Uncle Julian. The first is in the early pages when Helen Clarke visits the Blackwoods for the customary Friday tea. This time she brings another guest unannounced – the meek Mrs Wright. Mrs Wright, against her better judgement and manners, is fascinated by the poisoning case and Uncle Julian sensing this exploits her curiosity to maximum effect. The other set piece involves Charles, the two sisters and Uncle Julian where the latter feels threatened that Charles is out to destroy his beloved papers. These flashes of comedy are perfect in relieving some moments of claustrophobia.

There are two themes that are strongly on display in the novel.

The first is how badly conventional society perceives those who are cut from a different cloth largely labelling them as outcasts. It’s a society riddled with prejudices where people who deviate from certain accepted norms are not looked upon kindly.

The novel also examines how as individuals we can be resistant to change and the degree to which we will react if we feel threatened. We see this in Merricat’s behaviour who will go to any lengths to preserve her distorted ideal of family happiness.

Jackson’s writing is simply brilliant. She is great at creating atmosphere that is seeped in gothic elements – the creeping sense of dread as we read about the fate of the Blackwood sisters in their large home – even if there are no actual ghosts present. Her dialogues also crackle as does her penchant for wit.

In my Library of America edition of Jackson’s work, there is a chronology of her writing and personal life which makes for fascinating reading.  At the time of writing this novel, Jackson was essentially housebound and in frail health, and I can’t help but think that some of what she was experiencing possibly found its way into this book.

Indeed, I can firmly say that We Have Always Lived in the Castle will easily find a place in my ‘Best of’ list this year.

Library of America Edition

Love – Hanne Ørstavik (tr. Martin Aitken)

Hanne Ørstavik’s The Blue Room is one of my favourite Peirene novellas so far (the other Peirene favourite is The Looking Glass Sisters).

The Blue Room was among the top books I read in 2016. So when I learnt that Archipelago Books has released another of Ørstavik’s titles called Love, I knew I had to read it.

And what an excellent and dark little gem it turned out to be. Ørstavik clearly has the skill to bring out the uncanny in ordinary, everyday life.

Archipelago Books Edition. Cover Art by Norwegian painter Edvard Munch

Love is an unsettling novella set over the course of a single evening and night in a remote village in Norway during winter.

Vibeke and her son Jon have just moved into this small village a few months ago. We are told in the opening pages that tomorrow is Jon’s birthday and he will turn 9 years old.

From the outset, it becomes apparent that there is some kind of disconnect between mother and son. Jon is pretty sure that Vibeke is going to bake a cake for his birthday tomorrow and decides to give her all the space she needs to do so.

He goes out for a walk to sell a bunch of raffle tickets for his sports club.

He (Jon) feels a draft now that he’s standing still. It’s from the front door. They should have it insulated, with weather stripping and draft excluders like he’s seen in other houses. He sticks his water pistol in his back pocket and puts on a different woolly hat. Vibeke needs to be on her own so that she can get things ready. If he’s out while she’s baking the cake it’ll be more of a surprise, he thinks to himself. He goes out. Reaching the road, he wishes he’d put his mittens on., but he won’t go back.

Vibeke, meanwhile, has forgotten her son’s birthday – something that is clear to the reader, but not to Jon. Vibeke is a single mother and has managed to secure a job in an arts council in which she seems to have settled in well.

But Vibeke is in her own world. On that particular night, she chooses to go the library to collect some more books and also hopefully meet the engineer who had been flirting with her at work. But things don’t go as per plan. The library is closed and given that she took so much trouble to dress up, Vibeke wanders into the village fair.

For the rest of the evening, Vibeke and Jon are out of the house, but on their own with no inkling of what the other is upto.

That is the central set up of this novella.

It also makes Ørstavik’s storytelling technique unique and interesting. Given that each is on his/her own trip in the icy cold weather, the narrative keeps shifting between Vibeke and Jon and this happens in a series of alternate paragraphs rather than chapters.  This is done quite seamlessly and in the blink of an eye. So for instance, the reader will move on to the first few lines of a paragraph thinking that he/she is still reading about Vibeke, when the narrative has already switched to Jon’s.

Ørstavik also infuses enough tension in her writing so that at the end of the chapters you are left wondering whether it will all turn out well for both mother and son.

What makes it disconcerting for the reader is the ease with which Vibeke and Jon interact with strangers. Throughout the evening, Vibeke is in the company of a man called Tom, who works at the fair, and who Vibeke has met for the first time. When an old neighbour agrees to buy all the raffle tickets from Jon and tells him to go down with him to the basement, Jon willingly does so.

So much so that at one point in the novella, there’s a conversation that Jon has with another unknown woman…

‘Didn’t your mother ever tell you not to go with stranges?’

She rummages on as she speaks.

‘Why not?’

‘Not everyone’s as nice as me.’

She looks at him and smiles again. Her teeth are really quite small. He gets an urge to feel his own and compare.

‘My mom says everyone’s good on the inside.’

Love then is a novella that explores how both of the central characters are on a quest for intimate and deeper relationships. And yet paradoxically, they are not able to closely bond with each other. Jon, obviously, is seeking a loving connection with Vibeke, his mother. Vibeke is affectionate towards Jon, but its apparent she’s lonely.

She (Vibeke) reaches out and smoothes her hand over his (Jon’s) head.

‘Have you made any friends yet?’

His hair is fine and soft.

‘Jon,’ she says. ‘Dearest Jon.’

She repeats the movement while studying her hand. Her nail polish is pale and sandy with just a hint of pink.

For instance, Vibeke has hopes that her first encounter with Tom will slowly evolve into a more meaningful relationship. Jon keeps erroneously thinking that his mother is planning a surprise birthday for him, with a model train set as a gift, so he stays out for most of the evening with the fervent hope that Vibeke plans everything well.

What’s more, the lack of communication between mother and son is quite telling even on a basic level. That the story is set in the depths of winter in a country close to the Arctic, serves as an atmospheric and stark contrast to the protagonists’ search for warmth and a sense of belonging.

And to top it all, the ending comes as quite a shocker!

As mentioned earlier, Hanne Ørstavik first came to my attention with her novel The Blue Room. That one explored the troubled relationship between mother and daughter, but interestingly the mother in that book was overprotective.  

Clearly, based on both these novellas alone, Ørstavik has perfected the art of making the stories of imperfect mothers absorbing and riveting.