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.
You don’t read Per Petterson for his cheeriness but I Refuse seemed even more sombre than usual to me. In it two men, close friends when they were young, meet briefly one morning by coincidence. Expensively dressed, Tommy has just parked his car when he spots Jim, shabby in his old reefer coat. Each recognises the other despite the thirty years since their last meeting. Tommy’s remarks about his expensive Mercedes are made perhaps more from embarrassment than anything else but they bite. The rest of the novel is an overlapping mosaic of memories framed within the events of that September day.
Neither Tommy nor Jim are from conventionally happy families: Jim’s mother has told him nothing about the father he’s never seen and Tommy takes on the role of comforting his sisters, protecting them from his violent father after his mother disappears. Each is very different from the other but their friendship is the brightest thing in their lives. When eventually Tommy turns on his father after a particularly nasty beating, his family is broken up and scattered. Tommy moves in with Jonsen, the mill owner for whom he eventually works. The friends see less of each other, their bond strained even further by Jim’s move to another town and the months he spends in a psychiatric hospital. The bedrock of their lives has shifted. By the time of their chance meeting Tommy is a wealthy trader, moving money around on his computer screen while Jim has been sick for a year, his benefits about to be cut off. Now in their fifties neither is happy, both wrestling with what their lives have become and unable to find peace.
Through carefully layered first person and third person narratives from Jim and Tommy, occasionally interspersed with the memories of others, Petterson meticulously reconstructs their friendship and their lives over the past thirty years. Many passages are introspective – sometimes claustrophobic in the way that spending too much time in your own head becomes – punctuated by occasional dramatic events: the novel opens with a man lurching in front of Jim’s car, the appalling beating after which Tommy finally turns on his father, the sound of ice cracking on the frozen pond on which the two friends skate. Show not tell is the order of the day – small details click into place and by the end of the novel you feel that you know these men and the pain they have suffered. This is very fine writing – melancholic yet beautiful in its simplicity. Petterson once again proves himself thoroughly deserving of the many prizes heaped upon him. And Don Bartlett’s translation is a triumph.
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?
The jacket of Merethe Lindstrom’s beautifully written, quietly devastating novel suits it perfectly: the door of an almost empty room opens onto another room, opening onto another, all in varying shades of grey. It’s narrated by Eva and begins with an intruder, a young man who asks to use her phone when she is at home alone with her young daughters, setting us up for a very different kind of book from the meditation on memory and withholding, silence and loss, that it becomes. Simon is ten years older that Eva. A Jewish refugee, he and his immediate family spent much of the second world war in hiding: the rest were lost to the camps. Now an old man, he has dementia although at times it seems as if he has escaped the feelings of guilt and loss which haunt him by gradually withdrawing leaving Eva in ever-deepening silence. Eva also has a secret, one that she kept from Simon for many years as if it hardly mattered. Neither of them has shared their past with their three daughters, now grown up. They have few friends, becoming attached to their Eastern European cleaner whose dismissal and the reason why looms large in both their lives and the novel. Eva’s narrative returns again and again to themes of memory, loss, the silence of withheld secrets and with them, understanding. Its quiet, understated almost dispassionate tone sharpens the pain of Eva and Simon’s silence. Ultimately, it poses the question is it better to share the truth, no matter how painful, than attempt to protect either oneself or those who need to know by withholding it. Hardly an easy read, then, but one which provides a great deal to think about and a great deal to admire.
This will be my last review before Christmas but the plan for the next few days is to offer a glimpse of what publishers will be tempting us with in the New Year, or at least the temptations I’m eagerly anticipating.