Love by Hanne Ørstavik (transl. Martin Aitken): In the deep midwinter

Cover imageAlthough I’ve yet to read Hanne Ørstavik’s The Blue Room reviews of it by bloggers whose opinions I trust were enough to convince me that Love was likely to be something special. This spare novella tells the story of Vibeke and her son, Jon, on the eve of his ninth birthday, each, unbeknownst to the other, out and about on a frigid Norwegian winter’s night.

Vibeke and Jon have recently moved from the south to a village close to where she works as the arts and culture officer for the local authority. Vibeke spends most of her time reading when she’s not working, barely registering her imaginative, curious son although tender towards him when she does. Jon is sure that Vibeke has plans to bake him a birthday cake, considerately taking himself off to the visiting fair so that she can surprise him with it the next day. Vibeke, however, has not a thought for Jon’s birthday, caught up in fantasies of the brown-eyed colleague for whom she preens in the mirror before setting off for the local library in the hope of bumping into him. When Jon returns, he finds he’s locked out, convincing himself that his mother has gone to the convenience store for cake ingredients. Off he goes again, taken home by a young girl who spots he has no mittens. Meanwhile, finding the library closed, Vibeke has switched the focus of her fancy to a friendly worker at the fair. Over a single, chilly night Jon and Vibeke’s paths will almost cross, both of them returning home during the long winter’s night. The next day will be far from what either of them might have expected.

Written in clean, bright prose, Ørstavik’s intense novella packs quite a punch. Her narrative slips back and forth between Jon and Vibeke, smoothly at times, at others shifting disconcertingly, disorienting the reader and ratcheting up the tension as we wonder what will happen to each of them. Both characters are vividly drawn, their voices clear and distinct. Jon is an endearing little boy, sensitive and curious, given to catastrophist thinking about his mother who he calls ‘Vibeke’ rather than ‘Mum’. Vibeke is a naive young mother, married far too young, her head full of romantic fantasies and willing to take risks to fulfil them. While it’s clear she loves her son – there’s a tenderness in the few exchanges between them – she hardly notices he’s there most of the time, a carelessness that will cost them both dear. The stories of the fair workers with whom each of them becomes involved are left untold but we can guess that for them Jon and Vibeke are mere bit-players or perhaps even pawns. Altogether a very polished, powerful piece of writing, beautifully expressed. Time to order a copy of The Blue Room, I think.

And Other Stories: London 2019 9781911508724 128 pages Paperback

16 thoughts on “Love by Hanne Ørstavik (transl. Martin Aitken): In the deep midwinter”

  1. Although it was very painful to read at times, this was probably my favourite of the first year of Asymptote Book Club reads. It broke my heart a little, though! The Blue Room is even more claustrophobic and strange, so … be warned.

  2. I was very impressed with The Blue Room, when I read it a few years ago. It was dark but riveting, and on the strength of it alone prompted me to purchase a copy of Love. I am now very keen to get to it, hopefully soon!

  3. Great review, Susan! I remember loving the atmosphere in The Blue Room – such a claustrophobic read. Now I am curious about Love. Thank you for bringing this book to my attention.

  4. OMG I read both Love and the Blue Room without realising that they were by the same writer. I need to pay more attention!
    I found both very moving in a disturbing kind of way. Great review. Thanks Caroline

  5. I have a feeling her books might be hard to find over here, but now I’m so curious to know what happens. I already feel so sad for little Jon that his mother has forgotten his birthday.

  6. I recall hearing this novel being discussed (very enthusiastically) on R4’s Saturday Review a few weeks ago. It sounded excellent – a view confirmed by your perceptive commentary here. One for the wishlist, I think.

  7. I read the US edition of this and I found it unforgettable. I couldn’t stop thinking about Jon. I haven’t read The Blue Room either, but have heard good things about it.

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