Tag Archives: Martin Aitken

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.

This Should Be Written in the Present Tense by Helle Helle (review)

Helle Helle is one of Denmark’s leading contemporary novelists, and This Should Be Written in the Present Tense (originally published in 2011) is the first of her books to be translated into English. It’s a strange novella. I wasn’t sure whether to review it at first, but in the end, something about it got under my skin.

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The story is narrated by twenty-year-old Dorte, a student at Copenhagen University. At least that’s what she tells her family and acquaintances – she doesn’t seem to have many friends. Instead she spends her days drifting around Glumsø, the small town where she lives by the railway, or travelling to Copenhagen to wander the streets and shopping malls. Dorte lives by herself, and her existence is desperately quiet and isolated save for a few random off-beat encounters with the neighbours and passers-by:

I bought a roll and a cup of coffee at the bakery in the arcade. The place was expensive, but you could sit there as long as you liked and they didn’t charge for water. I sat right at the back against the wall. I got my book out and tried to read. After almost an hour I went to Scala. I went round the different floors, looking at jewellery and jeans, I took the escalator up to the cinema, but there was nothing on that I wanted to see. Before I went home I bought a melon in the Irma supermarket. I sat on a train with it in my canvas bag, looking out at the back garden and sheds and little houses. I thought about my own bungalow with the apple tree and no curtains. It was a very sad melon. I put it in the window in the kitchen, it stayed there until well into November. (pg. 44, Harvill Secker)

As the story unravels, we learn more about events in the past two or three years in this young girl’s life. At eighteen, while working as an au pair, Dorte drifts into a relationship with a boy called Per, ‘he didn’t know what to do with himself either.’ She ends up moving in with Per, the young couple sharing a new bedsit on the first floor of the family’s home. This isn’t the first time Dorte has left home though (and possibly not the last either) as Helle slips the following statement into the story:

It was the third time I’d left home. My mum and dad gave us a pewter mug as a moving-in present, but they never got the chance to see the place. (pg. 36)

This short passage is indicative of the author’s approach. This is a book where certain aspects of Dorte’s life are clear from the narrative, but so much of what’s actually happening here is implied or suggested that the reader must endeavour to fill in the gaps. A more distinct picture only comes into focus as we try to look beyond the words on the page, making connections between what Dorte is telling us and what we suspect is happening. For instance, by the time we reach the end of the following passage we have a pretty good sense of what has happened to Dorte. Elsewhere in the narrative, however, the text seems more oblique:

Per went with me to work and back again, he tickled me on the waterbed until I nearly fainted, he took his clothes off and put them back on again several times a day, went with me to the doctor’s when I got pregnant and on the bus to the hospital seven long days later, and on the way back that same afternoon he’s got me a present, a hair slide from a silversmith, made out of a spoon with a proper hallmark. I was so relieved and felt so much better despite the anaesthetic, we couldn’t stop laughing until the driver told us to be quiet. But then in the evening I had to go and lie down before dinner. Per told his parents I was feeling a bit off colour. (pg. 47)

Dorte’s relationship with Per doesn’t last. There’s a sense that she’s simply ‘waiting for it all to fall apart,’ and so she packs her suitcase and leaves – it seems like ‘the only thing to do.’ She slips in and out of relationships with a few other men. None of these attachments seem to be going anywhere. The only constant in Dorte’s life comes from the relationship with her aunt (who also happens to be called Dorte). Aunt Dorte has her own troubles, and when her backstory is revealed it feels like a punch to the guts.

Helle Helle’s prose strips everything back, and her matter-of-fact style matches the sparse nature of Dorte’s life – even her bungalow has little in the way of furniture, the windows lack curtains. There is a focus on the mundane, the directionless feel to Dorte’s life, and this approach may not appeal to every reader. It would be quite easy to give up on this book; I nearly abandoned it after 40 pages, but something about the sadness and isolation in Dorte’s life drew me in. She cries and has difficulty sleeping at night. I wondered if she was suffering from depression.

I read this novella several weeks ago, back in November in fact, and I’m still thinking about it. Gradually we discover that this girl is at a complete loss as to what to do with herself or how to move forward with life. There are moments when Dorte realises that she needs to take positive action, but she seems numbed by the reality of it all. I’ll finish with a quote that captures this feeling:

I painted my nails and decided I needed a new look and a new way of thinking and walking. I even thought I might put a piece together for a newspaper, I just didn’t know what about. There was nothing in particular I was good at, except perhaps writing lyrics for party songs, but I didn’t even do that any more. Instead I wrote a list of things I ought to see and do in Copenhagen. I was full of good ideas. For once, I fell asleep straight away, but then woke up again far too early. The front room looked like an explosion in a second-hand shop, and I’d got nail varnish on the lamp. I tidied up and got dressed. I was ready before six. I caught the five-past-nine. (pgs. 79-80)

This Should Be Written in the Present Tense (tr. by Martin Aitken) is published in the UK by Harvill Secker. Source: library copy.