The Blue Room by Hanne Ørstavik, tr. by Deborah Dawkin

Peirene Press do a fantastic job in unearthing contemporary European novellas, many of which are written by women writers. Peirene curate their books by theme, and The Blue Room is the second in their Coming-of-Age: Towards Identity series.

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Hanne Ørstavik, an award-winning Norwegian author, has published several books, but The Blue Room is her first to be translated into English, skilfully translated here by Deborah Dawkin. The story is narrated by Johanne, a young woman in her early twenties who lives with her mother in a small apartment in Norway. The novel begins on the morning when Johanne is due to leave Oslo for a six-week trip to America with her boyfriend Ivar, a trip her mother seems very reluctant for Johanne to take. When Joanne wakes, she finds herself locked in her room, alone in the apartment and unable to break free on her own. As the young girl waits, she soon realises she must let go of her excitement and hopes for everything that might happen in her relationship with Ivar. Instead, Johanne’s thoughts coalesce around a number of recent experiences: how she came to meet Ivar at University (where she’s studying to become a Clinical Psychologist), the role of religion in her life, and her relationship with her mother.

Johanne’s reflections reveal a recent sexual awakening, but also internal conflict between the different demands and influences in her life. On the one hand, she’s attracted to Ivar and is keen to explore her desires and sexual fantasies; but at other times, feelings of guilt and pain flood into her mind:

I lay on my side with my head on the pillow and looked out of the window; the blue of the sky was so clear it almost hurt. I felt it come again. I didn’t cry much, just a few tears rolling down, wetting my eyes. I wondered about the cause. My thoughts lay embedded in sinews and skin, beyond my reach. Those of you who believe yourselves to be clean, without sin, without guilt, may cast the first stone. I saw myself under a heap of stones. (pgs. 46-47, Peirene Press)

These conflicting forces play a part in Johanne’s reactions towards Ivar. As an example, here’s Johanne as she thinks back to an early stage in their relationship, and we see how quickly her thoughts change; what starts with the hope and promise of the first flushes of love suddenly flips into a mood tainted by fear and a sense of danger:

What I wanted most was to go for a walk in the forest, just the two of us, talking, alone, with the sun coming through the trees at an angle, looking at it together, getting to know each other. Ivar took a folded piece of yellow paper out of his pocket. Here’s the address and time and stuff, he said. He looked at me with his head to one side. He was serious. His lips moved a fraction, I observed the breath between them, and his freckles. He’ll kiss me now, I thought. My lips were tingling, but nothing happened. He just looked at me, his face very close. It was if we’d made a promise to each other, exchanged a vow that had no outward expression, because it was unvoiced, but it would live on inside me for ever, real and genuine. Pure. I think Ivar felt it too. Like the words I love you. But then why, I wondered, hadn’t he kissed me? Did he think I was ugly? Repulsive? What was he after? A basement party somewhere near the Akerselva river, late at night. What did he intend to subject me to? Why me? Men always accost me when I’m in town or on the train, alcoholic kids, guys who are out of their heads, or who need someone to confide in. There must be something about me, something they see. Perhaps I’m marked. Perhaps I have a wound that everybody can see but me. Something wrong? Ivar asked, putting a hand on my arm. I still hadn’t answered him about the party. His grasp was firm. A strong, warm hand on my arm. That’s how it starts, So-called concern, I thought later. Just another word for manipulation. (pgs. 94-95)

As the story develops, we can’t help but feel that Johanne’s fears about Ivar’s intentions stem from her mother’s ideas about men and their motives in general:

Men are so simple. Controlled by sex and power. Like robots, she said. (pg. 51)

The claustrophobic, almost stifling setting for Johanne’s confinement reflects the nature of her ties to her mother. It’s a very unsettling, unnerving read, especially when disturbing visions of a sexual and intense nature flood into Johanne’s mind like bolts from the blue. But it’s a subtle book, too; I found myself reading each line quite slowly, looking behind the words on the page for hints and clues about events in Johanne and her mother’s past that might shed light on various elements within the story. And the ending is quite chilling; it’s one that left me trying to imagine what might happen to Johanne in the hours and days to come.

As with all the Peirene novellas I’ve read to date, I’m sure a second reading of The Blue Room will reveal additional nuances and insights. That’s one of the things I like about Peirene books – there’s always something new to discover when one returns to a Peirene story, even if The Blue Room might be an uncomfortable place to revisit.

A number of other bloggers have also reviewed this book – if you’d like to read their thoughts, just click on the links: Claire at Word by Word, Lindsay at The Little Reader Library and Naomi and The Writes of Women.

The Blue Room is published in the UK by Peirene Press. Source: review copy kindly provided by the publishers.

32 thoughts on “The Blue Room by Hanne Ørstavik, tr. by Deborah Dawkin

    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Thank you, Naomi. I love your review, especially your comments about the references to Johanne’s body. That last line is quite something, isn’t it? And yes, we do need a forum for a spoiler-free chat about this!

      Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      I’m afraid so. Helen! Sorry to add to your ever-increasing tbr tower, but this one is worth it. It’s just so unnerving and thought-provoking.

      Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      A subscription would be money well spent, I think. Meike and the Peirene team have such an excellent track record in finding literary gems, and this book is very intriguing. I’m looking forward to hearing what you think of The Mussel Feast, too – I think you have a copy of that one?.

      Reply
  1. Brian Joseph

    Superb commentary.

    I had heard good a lot of good things about this book. It really sounds different. It also sounds like an intriguing psychological exploration.

    Good point about rereading. Such an endeavor seems to reveal so much complexity when one menages in it with just about any good book.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Thank you, Brian. Yes, a psychological exploration is a very good way of describing it. It’s a very interesting book, and one thing I find fascinating is the way Claire, Lindsay and Naomi have all discovered something different within Johanne’s story.
      I’ve read five or six of the Peirene novellas now, all of which feel as if they have more to offer the second time around.

      Reply
  2. The Little Reader Library

    Great reading your thoughts on this one Jacqui. Thank you again for linking to my review. I agree that a second read would very likely reveal more, and also agree that that would apply to all the Peirene novellas I’ve read thus far.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Thanks, Lindsay, and I enjoyed having a proper read of your review today – I’d been holding off until I’d finished putting my thoughts together on here. It’s very interesting to read your, Claire and Naomi’s reflections on this one as it’s such a powerful and unnerving book!

      Reply
  3. Desperate reader

    I read this book a slightly different way and am inclined to argue that Johanne is manipulating her mother into holding on to her. The relationship with Ivar has only existed for a couple of weeks, it might even be mostly fantasy, but either way how many mothers would be comfortable with their daughters dropping out of studies to leave the country with a man she’d only known briefly? Johanne presents her mother as sexually available to men but I think the foot rubbing episode is even more significant – that’s a man stepping into this unhealthily close mother daughter relationship. When Johanne refuses to spend the night with Ivar she’s also refusing to let her mother spend the night with another man. Does she really want her freedom?

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Hi Hayley – that’s a very plausible reading of this book, and there’s certainly enough ambiguity in the narrative to allow for different interpretations. I don’t know if you’ve read Naomi’s review, but she raises a very good question as to who has locked Johanne in the Blue Room (and whether the room is metaphysical rather than literal). Your comments also remind me that we only hear Johanne’s side of the story. The more I think about this book and discuss it with others, the more inclined I am to revisit it. The Blue Room strikes me as a story that could read quite differently second time around.

      Reply
      1. Desperate reader

        I agree, it’s a fascinating book with the possibility of multiple readings in it. I didn’t say anything about Johanne and Karin’s relationship but that’s interesting too in an ambiguous sort of way.

        Reply
  4. Bellezza

    I saw several tweets between you, I think, and others who had read this; it made me instantly want to pick it up for myself. I am most impressed with the books that Peirene press publish. Each one seems to get at the core of the human psyche in a very piercing way. (Will I ever forget The Mussel Feast? No.)

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      The Blue Room is a very intriguing book, Bellezza – the narrative is quite slippery and difficult to pin down, hence the level of debate! I’d love to know what you think of it, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see it on next year’s IFFP longlist. It’s a very different book to The Mussel Feast, but it does tap into another unnerving (and very disturbing) aspect of the human psyche.

      Reply
  5. Elena

    Amazing review and I love the sound of it. I think it should be a very recommended reading for young women. It reminds me of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. What do you think?

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Thank you, Elena! The Blue Room is an excellent book, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on it if you get a chance to read it. It’s a good 25 years or so since I read The Bell Jar, but I think there are some parallels. The more I reflect on The Blue Room, the more I’m of the belief that there’s a metaphysical element to the narrative…and it certainly caused me to question what is real vs imaginary. A very intriguing book indeed.

      Reply
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