The single word of the title, Love, is absent throughout this short novel. Is there love? Do the characters love each other? Can Vibeke love Jon as a mother should? Is it absence of love, or the search for it that causes the final tragedy? Set in the snowy north of Norway, without daylight, these are some clues about the emotional temperature of this novel.
Every month I read and comment on a book by a woman in translation. Mostly they have been works of fiction. Love by Hanne Østavik is a short book, sent by the Asymptote club. Originally published in 1997 in Norwegian, it was translated by Martin Aitken for publication by archipelago books this year.
A summary of Love
Vibeke, a single mother, and her son Jon have recently moved to the village in the north of Norway. The events of the novel take place over a single night. It will be Jon’s 9thbirthday the next day.
The story is told alternating, almost every paragraph between Vibeke and Jon, their thoughts and actions. Jon thinks about his mother and what she might be doing all the time. Vibeke, as far as we are told, never thinks about Jon once when she goes out.
After a quick meal of boiled sausages and bread wraps both mother and son go out, without the other knowing. She goes to the library, then to the fair and then to find some nightlife with a fairground worker. We see her creating a belief in the attraction the man Tom feels for her. She interprets every action as a step towards a closer relationship. He returns her home without anything happening. She assumes Jon is in bed. She has given no thought to him or his birthday or to the promises she made him last year.
Jon goes out to sell raffle tickets for a club he has recently joined, visits the house of a girl who attends his school and then goes home to find he has locked himself out and his mother is not in. He convinces himself that she has gone to get ingredients for his birthday cake. As he waits he is picked up by another fairground worker. At this moment one feels he is in real trouble, but it turns out that the driver of the car wants company. He too tries to guess what is in his companions’ minds, and to keep at bay his childish fears.
With two characters who make assumptions all the time, the final tragedy is inevitable but not foreseen.
As one reads this short but compelling novel, the absence of love, or of love expressed dominates every page. The relationship felt dysfunctional from the beginning. There were some moments when Jon’s naivety looks as if it will lead him into trouble: an old man leads him to his basement, but gives him a pair of old skates; he accepts the invitation to get in the stranger’s car, for example.
Vibeke appears distracted, wanting something that she can only imagine or fabricate from her situation. As a single mother myself I wondered how she could live with so little thought for Jon. Jon persuades himself that Vibeke is thinking of him and acting on his behalf, preparing for his birthday. Tragedy comes from the miscommunication.
The reader must work hard to discern the narrative, follow the two characters at the same time, distil their actions from the description, and feel the tension as it winds tighter and tighter. Here’s a random choice (I could not decide any criteria for a choice, except to show both Jon and Vibeke). Jon is in the house of a girl from his school, playing the board game Othello. Vibeke has just found that the library is closed but sees the lights of the fair.
“It’s my birthday tomorrow,” says Jon.
“Let me guess, you’ll be eighteen,” the girl says with a laugh.
Jon has the upper hand, his black counters are all over the board. The girl has given up and isn’t taking it seriously anymore.
Vibeke goes in through the fairground entrance. A reveller bumps into her, braying something unintelligible and carrying on oblivious. She stops and looks around. (35)
Love is a challenging but compelling read.
Love by Hanne Østavik published in English in 2018 by archipelago books. Translated from the Norwegian by Martin Aitken. Originally published as Kjaerlighetin 1997. 125pp
Women in translation series
Every month I review a book by a woman in translation on this blog. Here are some recent posts with links.
Go, Went, Goneby Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.
The Winterlingsby Cristina Sanchez-Andrade, translated from the Spanish by Samuel Rutter.
Memoirs of a Polar Bearby Yoko Tawada, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.
Nothing Holds Back the Nightby Delphine de Vigan, translated from the French by George Miller.
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