Translated from the Norwegian by Martin Aitken
The short novel Love (Kjærlighet) was published in Norway in 1997, but only appeared in English translation in 2018, when it was published by the marvellous Archipelago Press. Martin Aitken won the 2019 PEN American translation prize for his work on the book, which has been voted as the 6th best book to be published in Norway.
To my knowledge, this is only the second Norwegian book I’ve ever read, so I’m not in a position to judge whether it deserves that 6th place, but Hanne Ørstavik’s Love is very cleverly and tightly plotted, and a pretty compulsive read.
The book focuses on one evening in the the lives of a single mother, Vibeke, and her young son, Jon, on the day before Jon’s 9th birthday. They have recently moved to a small, rural town, where Vibeke has taken the role of arts and culture officer. The reader is pulled inside their consciousnesses from the start, and enmeshed in their thoughts.
Jon, a bit neglected, a bit lonely, longs for a toy train set for his birthday, complete with snow plough. He imagines his mother may have picked up on his hints, and dreams of the cake she will prepare for him. However, their pre-occupations are running on entirely different tracks.
Vibeke is a fantasist, vain, longing for romance, and obsessed with external appearances, whether they be physical looks or domestic interiors. She reads fanatically, as a form of escapism, wishing away her son, so that she can focus on her books:
“She gets through three books a week, often four or five. She wishes she could read all the time, sitting in bed with the duvet pulled up, with coffee, lots of cigarettes, and a warm nightdress on. She could have done without the TV too. I never watch it, she tells herself, but Jon would have minded.”
It is rapidly evident that Vibeke is a pretty terrible mother, due to her self-absorption. (I’m fairly certain that I’m a much better one, but I could relate to her longing for more reading time!)
Vibeke daydreams about a brown-eyed colleague at work, maybe he likes her?
“In the Q & A session he made a comment about being interested in extending interdepartmental collaborations”.
Dream sequences underline the fact that neither Jon nor Vibeke has their expectations grounded in reality.
From the second chapter, tension begins to build. Jon sets out after dark to sell raffle tickets, entering the home of an old man, who leads him down to a dark cellar, where we expect the worst is about to happen.
“At the bottom they go through a little passage, a mat of artificial grass covering the floor. The place smells rank and strange. Jon thinks it smells of soil. The man stops at a door at the end. He turns towards Jon, his hand on the handle.”
But, as we’re used to seeing in a film, the next paragraph cuts back to Vibeke, leaving the reader briefly disorientated:
“She takes off her clothes while she runs her bath. There’s no bubble bath left in the bottle. She takes a cotton bud from a box on the shelf and removes her nail polish with some remover…”
On this occasion the tension is resolved, harmlessly. The novel is full of such moments, as the narrative switches rapidly from one perspective to the other. With its sense of impending menace and horrible inevitability the book reminded me of Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream, another disarming, slim book. Every encounter is loaded with dread, through the knowing use of familiar tropes.
The outside world, the snow, the ice, the drifts, are all beautifully evoked, although the text is not poetic. Instead, it is stark, open and to the point. The novella concludes like one of Hans Christan Andersen’s darker fairy tales. Love is a strange, ironic title for a book that serves to highlight the ways in which we may so completely fail to understand or fully acknowledge those that are closest and most precious to us.