Love follows the nocturnal wanderings of mother and son, Vibeke and Jon, over one night in their lives. Vibeke is a single mother who has recently moved to town with her eight year old son, Jon. Vibeke works as an Arts and Culture Officer in a local authority and she likes reading, getting through at least three books a week. The whole book is told from both Vibeke’s and Jon’s perspective, flitting back and forth, so that we get to experience their thoughts and actions concurrently. Ørstavik is not using this technique to trip the reader up as it’s clear in the text whenever the switch between the two characters is made from the context of the story. It’s an highly effective technique.
The story begins with Vibeke returning from work on the eve of Jon’s ninth birthday. Here’s an example of Jon’s thoughts as he waits for his mother to return from work:
The sound of the car. When he’s waiting he can never quite recall it. I’ve forgotten, he tells himself. But then it comes back to him, often in pauses between the waiting, after he’s stopped thinking about it. And then she comes, and he recognizes the sound in an instant; he hears it with his tummy, it’s my tummy that remembers the sound, not me, he thinks to himself. And no sooner has he heard the car than he sees it too, from the corner of the window, her blue car coming round the bend behind the banks of snow, and she turns in at the house and drives up the little slope to the front door.
We realise early on that Jon is used to being by himself, he’s introspective and has an active imagination and curiosity about the world around him. Jon also has trouble with blinking as his eye muscles start to spasm at random moments. It’s difficult not to feel some affection for the boy.
When Vibeke returns she is thinking of her new job and getting a meal ready for the two of them. Even when they’re eating there is little interaction between themselves, they seem to be quite isolated in their thoughts. Jon thinks of school, the neighbours, his birthday the following day whilst Vibeke thinks of work, clothes she wants to buy and books she’s reading. Even when she does show some attention to her son she is soon sidetracked by thoughts of herself.
She reaches out and smoothes her hand over his head.
“Have you made any friends yet?”
His hair is fine and soft.
“Jon,” she says. “Dearest Jon.”
She repeats the movement while studying her hand. Her nail polish is pale and sandy with just a hint of pink. She likes to be discreet at work. She remembers the new set that must still be in her bag, plum, or was it wine; a dark, sensual lipstick and nail polish the same shade. To go with a dark, brown-eyed man, she thinks with a little smile.
Throughout the night covered by the novel Vibeke rarely thinks of her son and she has totally forgotten that it is his birthday the following day so it would have been easy for Ørstavik to make her into some kind of monster; but she doesn’t, Vibeke is certainly self-obsessed to some degree but she comes across as quite a naive, innocent, woman who just wants good things to happen to herself and her son.
The bulk of the novel takes place once Jon leaves the house, he has some raffle tickets for a sports club that he wants to sell to some of the neighbours. He leaves the house and soon after Vibeke leaves intending to return some books to the library, however she is unaware that Jon is no longer in the house. First off Jon knocks on the door of an old man who lives opposite him. He is invited in, the man offers to buy all the tickets then thinks of something and invites Jon down to the cellar. At this point we, the reader, are picturing that all sorts of horrible things will happen, especially when Jon notices, quite innocently, a dog collar and chain hanging from a hook in the ceiling. Ørstavik plays brilliantly with the readers’ expectations throughout the novel as Jon meanders about. He starts talking with a girl who invites him back to her house. Jon stays there after she goes to bed and her parents appear quietly menacing to us, but not to Jon. Later on he gets into a car with a woman, who Jon suspects may really be a man, whose intentions towards Jon are unclear. We fear for Jon who seems oblivious to any danger. The driver appears to know who Jon’s mother is, which is another source of concern for the reader.
Meanwhile Vibeke, finding the library shut, ends up at a fairground where she chats to one of the fairground men, called Tom, and goes back to his caravan. As with Jon we begin to wonder what will happen to Vibeke. Although she has only just met the man, she seems to be imagining them living together whilst his interest in her seems to be waning already. When they go out to find a bar or nightclub he appears to us to be almost absent, more interested in chatting up other women than Vibeke, whilst Vibeke sees little wrong with this. At one point in the novel Vibeke, in a car driven by Tom, passes by the parked car that contains Jon and the woman. At ths point the reader is fearing what will happen to both characters.
Love is an excellent book, easily comparable with the equally excellent The Blue Room. I love the way that Ørstavik plays with the expectations of the reader by placing the characters in potentially dangerous situations and throwing us false clues, or rather, clues which would be significant in a thriller of horror book but which are insignificant here. But Love is mostly about the two characters Vibeke and Jon. Both come across as innocent, introspective people but basically decent, though Vibeke is quite self-obsessed and thoughtless, illustrated by her forgetting her son’s birthday. Whether she should be vilified as a bad mother or bad person because of that is left for us to decide. The ending was suitably ambiguous though we are thrown enough clues for us to guess what happened or could have happened. The problem is, given our experience with the rest of the book, should we trust our own thoughts based on these clues?