The novel opens with Johanne, a twenty-something woman who lives in a flat with her mum (or Mum in the text), discovering that her mum has locked her in before going off to work. The whole novel is Johanne’s account of recent events leading up to this event. The narrative flits back and forth a bit without a break in the flow of the narrative but it is easy to get used to Ørstavik’s technique as little clues are given in the text. We discover that Johanne is a psychology student, she’s a little odd, a little quirky and doesn’t have many friends apart from Karin, who is about to embark on becoming a minister. Johanne’s father left when she was young and she was brought up, along with her brother Edward, by her mother. Johanne’s relationship with her mother is the main subject of this book and it’s a fascinating story to read even if we’re only getting Johanne’s view. It’s tempting to think that her mother is a tyrant as she’s locked her daughter in her room and so, as the story develops, it’s interesting to hear Johanne’s views of her mother. When Karin remarks how much she likes Johanne’s mother, Johanne says:
I told her how easy it was living with Mum, like being in a collective, that she was my best friend. Apart from you, I said smiling.
Johanne is very studious, she has just embarked on a Psychology degree, and takes her studies seriously. She doesn’t drink or party, she goes to church regularly and helps out with the chores, but there’s another side to her, she keeps having images of sado-masochistic sex, or violent sex, she feels at times that she’s living with her mother only as a way of spongeing off her and she can be quite tactless at times, like the time she dragged her mother to see the film Betty Blue even though she knew that her mother would not approve of the sexual imagery of the film. Johanne likes to get to the library reading room on time so she can start studying early and disapproves of her fellow students who have a more lax attitude though at the same time she is quite envious of them.
What they display, these students who don’t arrive in the reading room until nine, or even later, is a kind of daring. They play with life, with possibilities. For me my studies are like a tightrope I’m balancing on, life will begin only when I’ve reached the other side. Only when I’m standing there triumphantly, with a glowing testimonial and glittering results, only then, I think to myself, will I be free.
But things change when Johanne meets Ivar, who works at the university canteen and is in a band. Johanne has masochistic erotic daydreams about him. It turns out that Ivar is also attracted to Johanne and he asks her to go to see his band play. Johanne is unsure whether to go but in the end she does even though her mother disapproves. Her mother tells Johanne at one point ‘Men are so simple. Controlled by sex and power. Like robots…’ So, it is easy to think of her mother as either a prude or someone who hates men and therefore doesn’t want her daughter to have any relationship with men but it’s apparent from Johanne’s narrative that her mother has a lover, or lovers, that visit regularly. It may be that her mother understands Johanne better than Johanne does herself and that she is concerned that her daughter will ruin her life over her fling with Ivar. Johanne’s mother meets Ivar when he visits and is not impressed with him, especially when he offers her, a tea-totaller, some wine. As a test she asks him to explain what love is.
Ivar asks Johanne, rather vaguely, to accompany him on a trip he’s about to take to the United States and Johanne, rather vaguely, agrees; the offer is left open. She torments herself as she wants to go, to be spontaneous for once, but worries about her studies, her mother and Karin.
I wished I could split my body in two, give one part to Mum and the other to Ivar. Then they could both have their share, and I could keep my ribcage as a little raft on which I’d curl up and float away.
But the night before Ivar is due to leave Johanne packs her bags in preparation for the trip. Johanne, who had been so studious, so caring, is now prepared to abandon everything to go off with Ivar, whom she has only known for two weeks. And so her mother locks her in her room to prevent her from going.
There is so much in this novel that I’ve had to leave out of this post but there is a lot in the novel that is left ambiguous, not least the ending. The main reason is that we’re only getting Johanne’s point of view and she’s a very unreliable narrator. But it’s all done so perfectly that the ambiguities reflect those ambiguities that we all experience in life; where not only are others’ actions are difficult to understand but our own are as well. What a brilliant novel. If Ørstavik’s other novels are as half as good we’re really missing out in not having English translations available.
I read this as part of the ‘Women In Translation Month’.
I first heard of this book from the review at BookerTalk. Thanks Karen.