After the pyrotechnics of Siri Hustvedt’s new novel last week I felt in need of something a little less taxing, something engaging but not too challenging. Dea Brøvig’s The Last Boat Home looked a likely candidate. It’s a first novel set in a tiny community on the Norwegian coast.
Two narrative strands alternate between the mid-70s, when Else was just sixteen, and 2009, when her first love, Lars, brings his young family and second wife back home to live. Else is already a grandmother – her plans to leave Torgatta scuppered by teenage pregnancy – and her relationship with her daughter Marianne is fractious. She adores her granddaughter, eleven-year-old Liv, but frets about Marianne’s flibberty-gibbet ways, sceptical about her relationship with Mads, a Swedish dancer. Back in the mid-70s, Torgatta is inward looking, gossip ridden, prurient and pious. Life is hard – Else must milk the cow before school – and made more so by her drunken father who beats his wife. Lars is the son of the local shipyard owner, more than a cut above Else who keeps their relationship secret. Into this most insular of communities comes the circus with all its excitements. Three members stay behind, Valentin the strong man and the Bezrukov brothers one of whom has his eye on Else.
Unsurprisingly, there’s a dark secret to be revealed – it’s a Scandi novel, after all – and Brøvig is good at keeping us guessing, leading us up a few blind alleys so that the revelation and its consequences is a shock when it comes. Torgatta’s insularity is sharply portrayed – piety, hypocrisy and gossip go hand in hand – with Pastor Seip sitting in judgement on them all while turning his nose up at the chicory which is offered when his congregants can’t afford coffee. The contrast between pre-oil rich ‘70s Norway and 2009, when the rest of us were still reeling from the global financial meltdown, is well drawn. It’s an absorbing novel which calmed my fizzing brain down nicely after Ms Hustvedt’s cerebral book. And why wasn’t that on the Baileys longlist?