An evocative and moving gem, Love is a novella, but it packs a punch that leaves a bruise that takes a long time to fade. With its spare, pared-down prose and constant sense of brooding unease, this is literary Norwegian noir with all the snow and isolation, but without the crime. Written in 1997 by prize-winning author Hanne Orstavik, it’s now accessible to English readers for the first times in this fine translation by Martin Aitken from Archipelago Books (from mid Feb, 2018)
Vibeke and her eight year old son, Jon have recently moved to a small village in Norway to make a new start. She hopes he’ll make friends and that she’ll find a boyfriend. Everywhere is covered in snow, it’s Jon’s birthday tomorrow but his mother would rather spend her free time reading:
a good book, a big thick one of the kind that leave an impression stronger and realer than life itself.
They spend the evening separately: Jon goes to sell raffle tickets to his neighbour while Vibeke goes to the library, and their stories seamlessly alternate and echo each other. Jon loves his mother and is excited about his birthday. Vibeke fantasises and builds up the perfect love affair from one meeting with a stranger:
I can wait. I’ll sheathe us both in speechless intimacy, until we’re ready for the abruptness of words.
Orstavik tantalises the reader by setting up the kinds of scenarios you’d expect in a horror movie, then skilfully sidesteps at the last minute: Will Jon go down to the cellar with the old man? Will Vibeke go back to a stranger’s caravan? Does Jon get into a stranger’s car? Does Vibeke go with the man to an isolated bar? As each possible decision is taken and played out, the atmosphere becomes darker. But the ending still comes as a complete shock. The reader has been anticipating one or both will come to a sticky end, but ultimately it is a misunderstanding, not an act of violence, that leads to tragedy.
Love explores modern family life, loneliness and what we expect from love, in all its forms. A beautiful, moving story that never let’s the reader off the hook.