Love (2018, tr. Martin Aitken. Original: Kjærlighet, 1997), or the absence of it, unfolds on a single day in the lives of Vibeke and her eight-year old son, Jon. It’s winter, we are on the eve of Jon’s birthday, and he is wating for his mother to come home from work.
They have recently moved to a small town in the north of Norway, and Vibeke works as an arts and culture manager in the local community. She is a single mother and a voracious reader; she is lonely and aloof – and, more importantly, she does not fit in the stereotype of how a mother should be or what a she should feel.
Jon is lonely, too. He is constantly thinking about his mother, but they never really talk to each other. Even when they are together, their thoughts seem to be trapped in two uncommunicable islands: he is thinking of school, she is daydreaming about clothes, nail polish, books, love.
Jon imagines that Vibeke must be busy preparing everything for his birthday, but she seems to have completely forgotten about it. Vibeke comes home, takes a bath, and, believing Jon must be home somewhere, she goes out again to return some books to the library. On the other hand, thinking that his mother must be busy, Jon leaves the house to try to sell some raffle tickets to the neighbours.
We follow their separate but oddly interconnected journeys into the night, and the novel is told alternately from Vibeke’s and Jon’s points of view, switching back and forth between them – and, occasionally, it happens so seamlessly, that we feel as if we were following a long shot, and the camera were passing through loosely interconnected movie sets.
Wandering in their parallel journeys, Vibeke and Jon have various encounters with strangers in the night, and we have a vague sense that danger is lurking somewhere. Jon meets an old man, goes with him down to the guy’s cellar, and there is a chain hanging from the wall; in another scene, Jon starts talking to a girl, goes to her house, she then goes to bed, and her parents start to talk with him in a strange, vaguely erotic way; later, he gets into a car with a woman wearing a wig, and wonders whether she might be a man.
Meanwhile, Vibeke meets a stranger who works at a travelling funfair, and goes with him to his caravan. We have an uncanny feeling that there might be something menacing in what mother and son are doing, but we cannot know exactly what or why. Vibeke and Jon seem oblivious to any kind of danger. Maybe the danger is only in our minds…
As in your novella The Blue Room (2014, tr. Deborah Dawkin. Original: Like sant som jeg er virkelig, 1999), you are brilliant at playing with our expectations and creating a strong sense of dread (while, at the same time, refusing to see the characters as monsters). And the fact the they can always turn out to be monsters but never really do only deepens our sense of dread.
The highlight of the novel for me was the way you trapped your characters inside their loneliness; and then made their islands of isolation touch in unsuspected points that remained invisible to them. Vibeke and Jon are inside different cars, but they pass by one another without noticing. As the novel progresses, their different perspectives start to flow into and from one another in the space of a few paragraphs. One scene flows into another as if they were the same; the islands briefly touch, then flow away.
Mother and son are miles apart, and only the way you structured the narrative makes them seem closer and connected – which only throws us more deeply into their shared bubbles of loneliness. The book ends in waiting, on a similar point where it had started, but on a bleaker note. And there is no better way of writing a novel about love than to centre it on the absence of love. “He stretches out on his tummy, settling into sleep. Inside his head everything is dark and big and still. He’ll wait for her here.“
While mother and son share close moments of intimacy (Vibeke walks naked around the house, for instance), there is this disquieting disconnect between them – as if their intimacy were only a glass jar: it’s transparent, pure and exact, we can see everything inside, but the jar is forever empty.
“He gazes into the curtain next to her. She feels like they share something now. It feels like pushing a boat from the shore, the moment the boat comes free of the sand and floats, floats on the water.” – Hanne Ørstavik, Love
“Things can be going on inside you without you even knowing. A chance encounter can set things in motion and you don’t always realize until afterwards that something has happened and you’re changed.” – Hanne Ørstavik, Love