I seem to have read more novellas than usual this year. Not entirely a conscious decision – I love that feeling of sinking into a doorstopper, particularly in winter – but several of the shorter novels I’ve reviewed have packed much more of a punch than a luxuriously fat, piece of storytelling often does. Nicolai Houm’s The Gradual Disappearance of Jane Ashland is a case in point: a slim yet powerful book which explores love, loss and the meaning of life all within fewer than 200 pages.
The eponymous Jane is zipped up in a fogbound bright orange tent, alone in the middle of the Norwegian wilderness and contemplating what has brought her to this state. Jane is Canadian, a successful novelist and teacher. Blocked in her writing, she’s immersed herself in tracing her Norwegian family history, contacting Lars Christian who has invited her to his home. On the flight from New York, she meets Ulf who suggests she accompany him on a field trip researching musk oxen. When things go horribly wrong at the Askeland-Nilsens’, Jane turns to Ulf, taking up his invitation despite neither of them having much in common with the other. Jane is given to apparently capricious rages, often drinking far too much and taking too many of the diazepam pills she uses to control her epilepsy. As her story unfolds, flashing back and forth, we understand that something dreadful has happened to Jane, untethering her and shattering the wholeness she thought she’d achieved.
Houm’s novel is expertly constructed. Written from Jane’s perspective, the slightly fragmented narrative circles the chance event which has blown apart her happy, successful life exposing its fragility. Small details are slipped in so that we piece together a picture of Jane’s troubled mental state and what has provoked it. This slow unfolding of her story makes the revelation – told in much longer passages than those which led up to it – all the more powerful. Beautifully translated by Anna Paterson, Houm’s writing is often striking: a therapist’s office smelt of tear-stained paper hankies; only torn-off rags of the fog hang on the slope, the rest is gone the morning after Ulf leaves Jane in her tent. The characterisation is sharp and perceptive; Houm’s description of the first proper row in a relationship painfully recognisable. There’s a little quiet humour sprinkled here and there but somehow this only emphasizes Jane’s plight. A thoroughly accomplished piece of writing, this is the first book by Houm to be translated into English. Let’s hope there are plans for more.