The Blue Room, tr. Deborah Dawkin (Original: Like sant som jeg er virkelig, 1999) is a novella about a girl who finds herself unable to break free from a relationship which is played out as a place she finds herself trapped in.
Our narrator, Johanne, is a twenty-something psychology student who lives with her mother in a small flat in Oslo. When the novel opens, Johanne is due to leave in the morning, for a six-week trip to the United States with her boyfriend Ivar. Shortly after waking up, however, she finds herself trapped in her room. As Johanne spends this day locked inside, we follow through her meandering thoughts about her studies, her religion, her daily habits, her friends, and her relationship with her mother.
Her mind keeps coming back and forth between some fragmented events in the past, the day she first met Ivar at the university cafeteria, and the way their relationship developed. Interspersed with those thoughts, we have Johanne’s dreams, pious reflections, and masochistic fantasies – in a disturbing combination that ends up by blurring the line between reality and imagination.
Soon it becomes evident that Johanne is not a very reliable narrator: if, at the beginning, her mother is pictured as a domineering, unstable figure, by the end we come to question whether Johanne might be the real passive-aggressive bully. “Then we could each spread our sheets on top of each other, Mum and I, and see where our lines diverged. And we could take an eraser and adjust them to match.”
The mother-daughter ambivalent relationship is at the heart of the book: “She’s right, I thought, we belong together like two clasped hands.” At times, it reads like a power game, where we don’t quite know who is manipulating whom. Furthermore, the role of the care-giver is frequently being passed on between mother and daughter. Sometimes, we have the feeling that Johanne is struggling to please her mother; other times, however, the girl’s efforts just sound like some strange kind of emotional manipulation.
At first, it is tempting to read Johanne’s confinement as a story of a daughter not only trapped in her love for her mother, but also locked in her room by a mother who doesn’t want to let go of her child. In this vein, we are tempted to understand Johanne and Ivar’s relationship and their travel to the United States as the girl’s only chance of breaking free from a domineering mother.
However, you force us, from the beginning, to take everything with a pinch of salt: has Johanne’s mother really locked her in the bedroom? Or is Johanne only imagining it, making it up as an excuse for not really wanting to leave? Has Johanne locked herself? It is not even clear whether her mother really wants her daughter in the house; at times, it seems that Johanne has no intention of leaving home in the first place, and that she is only using her mother’s hospitality in order to save money.
Equally ambivalent is the relationship between Johanne and Ivar. It plays out mostly in her mind: is she imagining it? By the end, we are not even sure whether Ivar has dated her, or whether she is merely inserting him as a character in her wild fantasies; we don’t know whether Ivar has really invited her to join him in his trip to the United States, or whether she invented it all as an excuse for his departure, or even as a way to emotionally manipulate her mother – to make her mother want her to stay. Moreover, by locking herself in her room, Johanne finds a place where she can escape the inevitability of having to choose between her mother and her boyfriend; a place where she can escape the difficulties of being independent, as well as escape the consequences of her choices.
The blue room is also the only place where her fantasies and, ultimately, her desire for control can take shape: she is trapped inside her mind, and so are we. This claustrophobic room not only mirrors the daughter-mother relationship, but, more importantly, it is the only space where Johanne can truly break free from the constraints of necessity, and enter into the wild expanse of imagination. This is the place where she can perform the otherwise impossible dream of being free without having to respond for it. There, everything happens exactly as she wants it to be – and she pays no price for it.
The original title of the book, ‘Like sant som jeg er virkelig” (which means something like ‘This Is What I Really Am’, and, more literally, ‘As true as I really am’) seems to give us a hint of how to read the story: unfolding as something between a therapy session, a bad dream, and a confession of guilt, Johanne’s narration may be full of lies, but those are the lies she desperately needs to believe in. Like the most intimate stories we tell ourselves in order to live, Johanne’s lies are revealing of what she is; like her, they are messy, contradictory, and, in a sense, as true as it gets.
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. – Hanne Ørstavik, The Blue Room
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. – Hanne Ørstavik, The Blue Room
“I have something lacking, a flaw. I have a hole out of which all my strength seems to drain.” – Hanne Ørstavik, The Blue Room
“How do we recognize when something starts. I think of the beginnings of various things in my life: my studies, my desire to be a psychologist, this thing with Ivar, my connection with God. Only in retrospect does a starting point become clear, something I can pin down to a particular book read at a certain moment, the light on those trees on that day, glimpsing a brown dog at a particular spot, the sound of the church bells ringing. But the fact is, there are no true beginnings, everything connects. And this continual interconnectedness constitutes original sin. But what do we do with the guilt? Being ignorant of the moment things begin, we can repeatedly deny guilt, pointing even further back to a previous event at the starting point – it wasn’t me. I prefer to think the opposite. To think of myself as guilty of everything, thus giving me a responsibility and a duty to change. Everything should be as new.” – Hanne Ørstavik, The Blue Room
“Suddenly it came over me again and I started to cry. No sobbing, just tears. Water, I thought, nothing but salt water, dropping onto the paper, making minuscule white suns. Clearly the slat had an effect on the colours, erasing them. I didn’t understand what was happening inside me. Then it passed, like a rain cloud, drifting away.” – Hanne Ørstavik, The Blue Room
I lay on my side with my head on the pillow and looked out of the window; the blue of the sky was so clear it almost hurt. I felt it come again. I didn’t cry much, just a few tears rolling down, wetting my eyes. I wondered about the cause. My thoughts lay embedded in sinews and skin, beyond my reach. Those of you who believe yourselves to be clean, without sin, without guilt, may cast the first stone. I saw myself under a heap of stones. – Hanne Ørstavik, The Blue Room