Will and Testament was my first novel by Vigdis Hjorth and it was just amazing. I now have Long Live the Post Horn to look forward to as well as her latest Is Mother Dead, a copy of which is already on its way to me. But in the meanwhile, this novel will 100% find a place on my best of the year list.
They say that to find a solution to a problem you need to admit that there’s a problem in the first place. How can you find ways to resolve the issue if you are not willing to accept the existence of the very issue that needs resolving? It’s the same with family and relationships. Families can be complex and complicated. Arguments, deep seated resentments and differing points of view can cause cracks in the familial structure that maybe hard to fix. While reconciliation is always a preferred option and healthy communication between various parties is one way of achieving this, what if there are certain instances where this is definitely not an option? Especially, in a scenario where a serious crime in the family has been committed and differing versions of it exist, where the victim’s version is not acknowledged because it challenges the other family members’ sense of self and makes them uncomfortable?
That is the central theme that underlines Vigdis Hjorth’s Will and Testament – a powerful, gripping, masterfully constructed novel about family feuds, abuse, trauma and a woman’s fight to be believed and her story acknowledged, where Hjorth cleverly uses the set-up of an inheritance dispute to examine the deeper fissures that run in a dysfunctional family.
Our protagonist is Bergljot, working as a magazine editor in Oslo writing theatre reviews. Bergjlot is now in her late fifties or earlier sixties with three grown up children (Soren, Ebba and Tale) and grandchildren, is in a relationship with a man called Lars and close to her friends Klara and Karen always pillars of support whenever a crisis erupts and she desperately needs someone to talk to.
Will and Testament opens with the news that Bergjlot’s dad died five months ago, a development that only exacerbates the ongoing property dispute between the four children and the mother. Before his death, the father had made a will leaving the two family cabins at Hvalar to his youngest children Astrid and Asa at very low valuations, a fact that angers Bard the eldest child and only son.
Bard vehemently challenges the terms of the inheritance but he is pretty much contesting a lone battle when the mother, father, Astrid and Asa refuse to budge from their position. Bergjlot initially chooses to stay out of this clash, having severed contact with the family more than twenty years ago. The modern reader will immediately discern the reason for Bergjlot’s refusal to get entangled – having been abused by the father as a child, the subsequent ordeal and the scars from that incident made it easier for Bergjlot to completely cut contact with her family in order to maintain her sanity.
Which is one of the reasons she does not wish to get embroiled in the feud; she thinks if she hasn’t bothered keeping in touch with her family, she cannot expect to be entitled to any inheritance. And yet the unfairness of the entire affair given how inextricably it’s linked with her past, persistently nags her compelling her to finally join the row siding with Bard; the two elder children against their mother and younger siblings.
Bard, a victim of neglect and physical abuse himself, argues about the principle of the matter, that the disagreement over the inheritance is not so much about money as it is about acknowledging the trauma inflicted upon them by their father, a view Bergjlot also shares. Isn’t it fair that he gets entitled to a half of one of the cabins as a form of compensation for a very difficult childhood?
The fractured family dynamics rub off on their children too. Bard’s daughters refuse to have anything to do with their aunts and grandparents, a development that causes the mother much heartache as she fears losing them completely. It’s the same with Bergjlot’s children who also remain ambivalent. Her daughter Tale refuses to attend family gatherings, but Soren and Ebba attend these get-togethers to keep up appearances although these occasions leave them uneasy.
While distribution of the property is a bone of contention in the present, much of the drama takes place in Bergjlot’s past, the root of all the discord in subsequent years. Through much of her growing up years and even post marriage, the abuse remains repressed in Bergjlot, life continues as if it never happened. But what is repressed is bound to resurface later and Bergjlot finally confronts her family only to be stonewalled. Branded as a liar by her mother, the father’s denial and lack of support from Astrid and Asa who choose to remain silent; Bergjlot is finally compelled to cut all contact.
One of the striking aspects of Will and Testament are the superb character studies, Hjorth brilliantly captures the flawed personalities, fears and insecurities of not only Bergjlot but also those of the mother (Inga) and Astrid who are as damaged by the father’s actions but unwilling to admit them.
Bergjlot, particularly, is a richly drawn character struggling to be believed by a family that staunchly refuses to do so. Unsurprisingly and understandably Bergjlot’s scars run deep and manifests in the chaotic way her personal life pans out – she divorces her wealthy, “nice” husband when her children are young because she is deeply in love with an unscrupulous married man, a relationship that also ultimately sours prompting her to finally opt in for psychoanalysis as a step towards healing. Bergjlot’s severing of all ties with her damaged family works to her advantage, but she remains tormented by her mother’s digs and insults about her behaviour and her sisters’ refusal to accept her version of the past. She is deeply conflicted about a family that desperately tries to silence her while at the same time makes her feel guilty about her actions. She is flawed but vulnerable and it’s her dogged insistence on fighting back, on telling her story that lends the novel much of its power.
The mother is also a damaged individual, a woman with only looks to her credit with no money or prospects of her own, at the mercy of her husband, and unable to stand up for her children. Bergjlot’s mother has suspicions of her husband’s crime, but she chooses to look away. Having loved another man herself, that affair comes to nothing, and somewhere deep down she resents Bergljot for taking charge of her life which she considers a rebuke to her own inability to do so. Hjorth often refers to the Norwegian dramatist Ibsen in her depiction of the mother – in Ibsen’s The Doll House, Nora finally decides to abandon her husband and family in an attempt to begin life anew, a path the mother does not have the guts to embark on.
Mum didn’t feel good about herself. Mum was pretty, but had no education, no experience, no money, Mum was Dad’s possession, Dad was proud of his pretty possession, Mum radiated fear. Mum was innocent in the sense that she was inexperienced and naïve. Many men prefer and are attracted to inexperienced and naïve women, simple, childish ones who are easy to impress, awestruck, devoted, sincere, needy, those who don’t use irony, who don’t hold back. Mum was inexperienced, childish and chose to remain a child. If Mum had chosen to grow up, her reality would have become unbearable.
Astrid desires the best of both worlds; she wishes her family to reconcile but without acknowledging the event that caused the rupture in the first place. She projects herself as a good person who wants to keep up appearances, and adopt a diplomatic approach towards the matter at hand, without accepting that there are times when you need to take a stand however unpleasant and even if it means a further rift in the family.
That was her mistake, Astrid’s mistake. She claimed to be neutral, but deep down she wasn’t because sweet-talking everyone isn’t being neutral if one party has hurt the other, only she didn’t factor that in or she didn’t believe it. She didn’t seem to understand or be willing to accept that there were conflicts which couldn’t be resolved in the way she would like them to be, that there are situations which can’t be balanced out, talked over and round, where you have to pick a side.
Deep down, Astrid and Asa resent Bergjlot because they perceive her to be their parents’ favorite child given the attention they showered upon Bergjlot little realizing the nature of that attention. As grown-ups, Astrid and Asa maintain a strong relationship with their parents, a bond that also results in them benefitting financially, but their closeness with the parents and silence on the ‘unmentionable’ matter makes it very clear to Bergjlot whose side they are on even if they have not explicitly stated it. Asa, interestingly, is not much of a presence in the novel as Astrid, but that is because she does not care about mending relations in the way Astrid desperately does.
At its core, Will and Testament, is about a victim of abuse fighting back to be heard, about the legacy of abuse that can run down generations, how it can irreparably damage relationships. This is a first person account; Bergjlot is the narrator where the repetition of events and episodes reflects her anxious, feverish state of mind as she struggles to come to terms with what has happened to her. The frenzied internal monologues capture Bergjlot’s distress to brilliant effect, the mounting dread and anxiety she experiences every time she is required to come face to face with her family. The tension palpable in Bergjlot’s voice, a product of her fretful personality lends an intense, gripping quality to the narrative propelling it forward.
If Bergjlot has deliberately abandoned her family, why should she bother what they think? If she has long ago given up the idea of any inheritance, why change her stance? Can such a fractured family ever reconcile when they are so intent on denying her reality and are busy brushing things under the carpet? These are the questions that repeatedly swirl in Bergjlot’s mind and raise pertinent questions about the limits of forgiveness in a family which repeatedly denies the existence of a grave crime.
Was it any wonder that I had felt troubled and ambivalent towards someone who wanted proof and reconciliation at the same time? That was the impossibility, the untruth which had lain unspoken underneath all our conversations, which now turned out to have been nothing but lies.
I thought this was an absolutely fantastic novel, timeless in its themes, and especially relevant given how difficult it is for abused women to come forward and be believed even in the current #MeToo era.