Love by Hanne Ørstavik (1997, tr. Martin Aitken, 2018)

A haunting, dreamlike novella that really gets under your skin.

Single mother, Vibeke, and her eight-year old son, Jon, have recently moved to a small town in Norway where Vibeke works as an arts and culture officer in the local community.

Right from the start of the book, there is a something of a disconnect between mother and son, a sense of separateness or isolation that sets them apart from one another. At home Vibeke seems more interested in her books and personal appearance than in Jon’s wellbeing, frequently daydreaming of men she has met at work and hopes to bump into again somewhere in the neighbourhood. Jon, for his part, has a natural curiosity about the world around him, using his imagination to keep himself occupied in the absence of other stimulation.

He looks at the snow outside and thinks of all the snowflakes that go to make a pile. He tries to count how many, in his head. They talked about it at school today. Ice crystals, they’re called. No two are ever the same. How many can there be in a snowball? Or on the windowpane, in a small speck of snow? (p. 10)

The novel unfolds over the course of a bitterly cold night during which both of these individuals embark on separate yet strangely connected journeys, searching for their own sense of fulfilment in an uncertain world. While Jon hopes his mother will spend the evening making a cake for his ninth birthday, Vibeke has plans of her own as she leaves the house to visit the local library. Unbeknownst to Vibeke, Jon is no longer at home at this point, the young boy having already left the house to give his mother some space for the longed-for birthday preparations.

She goes out into the vestibule, buttons her coat and studies herself in the mirror, pops her head back into the hall and calls out to Jon. She looks at her reflection again. She decided on hardly any makeup at all. He’s not answering. She calls again and glances at the time, less than half an hour before they close. He’s started going to bed on his own now, she’s not even allowed to come in and say good night. She thinks of his eyelashes, almost white. She moves her head from side to side, checking her hair in the mirror, the way it falls so softly about her face, her scalp still warm from the time it took to dry it. She snatches the keys from the little table, picks up the bag with the books in it and smiles at herself in the mirror again before opening the front door and stepping out. (p. 34)

Both Jon and Vibeke meet various strangers during their night-time wanderings, experiences that highlight the trust they place in unfamiliar and potentially dangerous individuals. Vibeke, in particular, lets her imagination run away with her, investing unrealistic hopes and expectations in a chance encounter with Tom, a traveller who works at the fairground currently in town.  Meanwhile, Jon comes into contact with a series of strangers, culminating in him placing his trust in a woman who also has a connection with the travelling funfair.

What I love about this novella is the way Ørstavik seamlessly switches between Vibeke and Jon throughout the narrative, highlighting both the connection and sense of separateness that surrounds these characters. It’s a testament to the author’s skill as a writer that this technique never feels confusing or gimmicky in any way. At various points in the story, Ørstavik also tests the reader’s emotions by creating situations that appear to place her characters in vulnerable or dangerous situations, raising questions of trust, protection and culpability. We fear for the safety of both mother and son, conscious of the subtle sense of foreboding and tension that continues to build as the bitter night unfolds.

Love is an excellent, thought-provoking book by an accomplished writer. Ørstavik takes care to avoid condemning Vibeke for the casual neglect of her son, thereby allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions from the scenarios as they unfold. The ambiguous nature of the ending only adds to the deeply unsettling feel of the novella as a whole. Very highly recommended indeed, both for book groups and for individual readers alike.

Love is published by And Other Stories; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

43 thoughts on “Love by Hanne Ørstavik (1997, tr. Martin Aitken, 2018)

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s so interesting to hear. I can imagine it making an indelible impression on virtually everyone who reads it. Have your friends come back to you to let you know what they thought of it?

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          God, yes. I’m not a mother, but even so, I can totally relate to those feelings. Without wishing to give away any spoilers, it’s impossible not to feel a creeping sense of dread as the night unfolds…

          Reply
  1. 1streading

    This is a wonderful book – I hope it makes it onto the Man Booker International Prize long list. Have you read The Blue Room? It also looks at a mother – child relationship.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, so do I! You read much more in the way of recent literature in translation than I do, so it’s great to hear that you rate this so highly. It really is a very powerful little book.

      Funnily enough, I have read The Blue Room, but I didn’t like it as much as this one. Admiration would be the word to use when describing my feelings about it. A book I admired rather than *loved* – no pun intended!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It *is* pretty sad and poignant, particularly in the sense of separateness that surrounds both Vibeke and Jon in spite of their connection to one another. That said, ‘unsettling’ is the word I would use to best convey the overriding tone or mood of the book. It’s a very disquieting story, if that makes sense?

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      God, yes. That ending! I know it’s somewhat ambiguous, but even so, you really fear the worst will happen. It’s a stunning book, so powerful and striking.

      Reply
  2. gertloveday

    It is wonderful that this exists in am English translation. So many good Norwegian writers and often only one book translated. The rest of their oeuvre only available to those who can read Nowegian Every year I say I am going to learn .

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I would definitely recommend this to you, Gert, especially given your fondness for other Norwegian lit. On the surface, the prose seems spare, and yet the emotions created are so powerful and full of depth. A very impressive book. It would be wonderful to read it in the original language.

      Reply
      1. gertloveday

        Spare prose and powerful emotions do seem typical of the best Norwegian writing. I’m thinking of Per Petterson and Gaute Heivoll here, not K O. Will definitely read this.

        Reply
  3. Brian Joseph

    This sounds like an interesting character study. The plot and structure seem to be different and original.

    I like the book cover. One can almost feel the cold air coming out of it.

    Reply
  4. Eric

    So glad you read and enjoyed this novel. And yes, that feeling of tension from how she writes those scenes is extraordinary. Such a haunting book!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think that sense of unease is very cleverly done, particularly as there are several points in the narrative where the author starts to create the expectation that something awful is be about to happen, only to pull back or change direction to give a difference outcome. And yet you sense in your heart of hearts that the night is almost certainly going to end badly…it’s very unsettling indeed.

      Reply
  5. heavenali

    Oh I remember this novella so well, such a beautifully, poignant story, atmospheric and unforgettable. I found myself thinking about it after I finished it for quite a while. I must read more by this author. Lovely review.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It leaves such a lasting impression, doesn’t it? I’m toying with the idea of suggesting it for our book group when my turn comes around again later this year. Even though it’s such a short book, there’s so much to discuss – about motherhood, duty of care, trust and culpability.

      Reply
  6. Jonathan

    I loved this book just as much, if not more than, The Blue Room. Both characters seem so vulnerable as they wander about.

    I notice you have a different version than my Archipelago edition. Is the translation by Martin Aitken?

    Reply
      1. JacquiWine Post author

        Yes, I preferred it to The Blue Room. Something about the mood and atmosphere really got to me. One of those boos with the potential to haunt your dreams for several nights.

        Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think the present tense does work here as it gives the narrative a sense of immediacy, almost as if the reader is shadowing the characters as they make their way through the night. It’s very effective, adding to the underlying tension and feeling of unease that run through the story.

      Reply
  7. Julé Cunningham

    Every time I’ve heard about this book it sounds so striking good, but I think I’d need to work up my emotional strength before picking it up. I get teary at the thought of Jon imagining his mother baking him a cake.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I do think you need to steel yourself for this one as it has the potential to be deeply unsettling and disquieting. Not a book to read if you’re feeling a bit fragile, irrespective of how tempting it might sound!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It is quite poignant and disquieting, especially given the sense of isolation that surrounds the little boy as he makes his way through the night. I would be really interested to hear your thoughts on it, particularly your impressions of the mother!

      Reply
  8. Radz Pandit

    Great review Jacqui of a wonderful book. I felt unsettled throughout and the novella built up to an ending that was both disturbing and heartbreaking.

    I am now keen to read more of Ørstavik’s work. I remember loving The Blue Room when I read it a few years ago.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, without wishing to give away too much, I found the ending so devastating. There’s an element of ambiguity there, but it’s hard not to fear the worst…

      Reply
  9. buriedinprint

    You’ve answered my question about the ending’s ambiguity. I’m curious now if you could bear to reread it, with the sense that things will go badly, to see if there are clues along the way, or if the experience was simply too much – something you’d prefer to set aside for good on the other side of it all.

    This isn’t an author I recognize, but this bit — “highlighting both the connection and sense of separateness that surrounds these characters” — makes me want to rush for the library catalogue!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s a really interesting question. Yes, I think I would re-read it – in fact, I’m toying with the idea of choosing it for my book group later this year, partly because it has the potential to spark so much discussion. (We have a rotating pick, so it’ll be the summer before my turn comes around again.) One of the most striking things about the sense of unease in the novel is the way Ørstavik begins to create the expectation that something terrible is about to happen, only to pull back or change direction to give a somewhat different (less threatening) outcome. There are a few examples of this in the book – both for Jon and for Vibeke. And yet, that awful feeling of dread remains with the reader right to the end…It’s very cleverly done.

      Reply
      1. buriedinprint

        That’s such a delight, to be pulled off and on the track like that (especially when you read a lot, and it takes a little extra to surprise you). Another instance in which I remember feeling that way, but with a film, was watching Moonlight, speaking of intense and connected/disconnected relationships (and mothers and sons).

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Oh, that’s an interesting comparison. Yes, I see what you mean about the intensity and push-pull nature of the relationship. Picking up on another theme we were discussing over at yours, I like the use of space in Moonlight as the fragmented narrative enables the viewer to bring an element of their own interpretation to the story. It’s a really powerful film, beautifully shot.

          Reply
  10. clodge2013

    I read this some time ago and found it very unsettling. It lingers still probably because of the casualness of the care of the mother for her son. I do not think love appeared as a word in the text ever. But there is love there too. The idea of a young child wandering around at night ….
    Thanks for this review. Caroline

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s a really good point about love. Deep down, I get the sense that Vibeke really does love Jon; it’s just that she doesn’t behave in the ways one might expect of a mother who is caring for a young boy. Casualness is exactly the right word to describe her approach. Vibeke lacks attentiveness and is easily distracted by other things (such as the man she hopes to bump into again in the neighbourhood) – that’s probably part of her personality or make-up. I don’t think she’s deliberately neglectful or dismissive of Jon, just somewhat careless.

      You know, it’s interesting. Last night, I watched a film in which one of the characters was talking about the challenges of bringing up children and the fact that you cannot blink or let your guard down, not even for a few seconds. Naturally, I couldn’t help but think of Vibeke…

      Reply
  11. madamebibilophile

    I’ve heard such good things about this and its great to hear you enjoyed it too. I really liked The Blue Room so I’d definitely be interested to read this. AndOtherStories have a great list!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you’d find this really compelling (I hesitate to say that you or other readers would ‘like’ it as that might not be the right word for such an unsettling book). And yes, And Other Stories have very interesting list; I really ought to take some time to explore it further!

      Reply
  12. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think that’s an important element, the way she allows the reader to come to their own assessment of the situation. It’s probably one of the reasons why I think this would suit book groups as the mother’s behaviour will almost certainly evoke some different responses.

      Reply

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