‘The Blue Room’ by Hanne Ørstavik (Review)

When considering books from publishers for Women In Translation Month, one small press definitely stood out.  In addition to releasing sets of three related novellas each year, Peirene Press have also kept the gender balance fairly even, with their first fourteen books equally split between male and female writers.  With that in mind, and having not read the latest Peirene offering, opting for today’s book was an easy decision to make.  If only all life’s decisions were as simple…

*****
Hanne Ørstavik’s The Blue Room (translated by Deborah Dawkin, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is a psychological novel set in two different places.  The first is the blue room of the title, the bedroom of Norwegian student Johanne, where the unfortunate young woman wakes one morning only to find that she can’t open the door – because it’s been locked from the outside.

Naked, confused and distressed about being unable to get to the airport (she was about to embark on a trip overseas), she is forced to spend the day thinking about why she’s being kept in her room.  The second setting for the story, then, is Johanne’s mind, and we’re immediately taken back a couple of weeks to her first meeting with the handsome Ivar, the catalyst for all that has followed.  However, wherever and whenever Johanne’s memories take us, one thing is certain; there’s a shadowy figure in her subconscious, and it’s someone very close to home…

The Blue Room is an excellent book, and after one reading it’s up there with my favourite Peirene books (probably my favourite of the ones I’ve read in English).  A fascinating read, it’s also frustrating at times, as the writer takes us on a trip through the psyche of a damaged, submissive young woman.  In following Johanne’s thoughts of the past two weeks, we are given a look at the problem of family relationships and the dangers arising when family members become that little bit too close.

Johanne is an intriguing creation.  While she’s an intelligent, popular and presumably attractive young woman, she’s also wracked with doubts, convinced she’s not up to the challenging life path she’s drawn up for herself.  She’s a psychology student who’s keen to jump to conclusions, swinging from happiness to self-loathing in seconds, and the minutely-detailed plans she has are shattered by the appearance of the charming Ivar.  Of all eventualities, it appears that love is the one she’s least well-equipped to deal with…

Which is not to say that she doesn’t want to be loved; in fact, she’s desperate for affection.  However, Johanne is actually looking for a lot more:

“Why can’t somebody take care of me?”
p.146 (Peirene Press, 2014)

This simple plea is key to her personality, revealing a longing to be dominated, a wholly submissive nature which is in danger of taking over her life.  The relationship with Ivar, which, for most people, would be a joyous time, is overshadowed at times by her depressing thoughts.  Her mind is full of disturbing images, her fantasies, nightmares, of what might happen if she allows herself to get swept away.

If you’re wondering where this all comes from, you don’t have to look very far.  A recent Twitter meme was asking for examples of bad parents in literature, and Johanne’s Mum would be right up there.  As well as showing us a fragile young woman, Ørstavik also creates a portrait of the mother as a highly damaging influence, a controlling, manipulative shadow hanging over poor Johanne’s life.  This is a mother-daughter relationship which goes a little too far (as shown by some quite disturbing scenes on the toilet..).

Of course, she is the one who has locked Johanne in her room, leaving her daughter to have a good think about her actions.  The mother herself, though, is not without her own issues, as we learn through the rare glimpses of the past which slip through Johanne’s subconscious.  The daughter’s fear of men stems from the mother’s own experiences:

“Men are so simple.  Controlled by sex and power.  Like robots”, she said. (pp.51/2)

With Johanne reliant on her mother for accommodation and living expenses if she’s ever going to achieve her plan of  building up a psychology practice (an idea which someone else planted in her mind…), she feels as if she’s using her mother, a feeling which leads to guilt.  In truth, though, it’s most definitely the mother who is abusing her position.

Ørstavik’s novel is a wonderful piece of writing, with an excellent translation, a book which skilfully inserts occasional, shocking images amongst the stream of mundane thoughts running through Johanne’s mind.  For the most part, the book is written in short sentences, but the sentences become longer, and more emotion laden, when Johanne gets excited, the plain descriptive prose being overrun by frantic, violent thoughts.  In addition to the themes covered above, there are several other areas which could be explored at length, such as the importance of Johanne’s faith in both helping and suppressing her and the symbolism of her back pain, a feature which comes up again and again in the story.  Someone else will have to follow those themes up, though 😉

As with most Peirene books, intertextual reading is also tempting.  Meike picks her books very carefully, and while the three works released each year form a whole, there are always nods back to previous offerings.  In terms of an unreliable narrator who offers the reader incomplete information, Next World Novella springs to mind, while the focus on a mother smothering her child will inevitably lead to thoughts of Beside the Sea.  Perhaps the guiding ethos of the Peirene empire is that mother does *not* always know best…

However, with its central theme of parental domination, perhaps it’s The Mussel Feast which best complements The Blue Room.  Without giving too much away, the book is really all about Johanne’s day in her room and what will happen to the mother-daughter bond when she gets out.  While the reader will be hoping Johanne manages to break free, it’s difficult to see someone so guilt laden being able to stand up to her oppressor when she appears so trapped, both mentally and physically:

“But what do we do with the guilt?  Being ignorant of the moment things began, we can repeatedly deny guilt, pointing ever further back to a previous event as 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.” (p.15)

It’s all very well for Virginia Woolf to ask for a room of one’s own – it’s of no use unless you’re able to go in and out without needing to ask for permission…

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10 thoughts on “‘The Blue Room’ by Hanne Ørstavik (Review)

  1. Brilliant review, Tony. The Blue Room is such an intriguing book and open to different interpretations/readings. I noticed the recurring references to Johanne's back pain (and discomfort in her head and eyebrows). I'm convinced there's a significance to it, but I couldn't decipher the meaning behind this motif.

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  2. Sounds interesting. Your review made me think this might be interesting to read in conjunction with The Yellow Wallpaper. (Have you read it/ It's really just a long short story and available freely online?) Another to watch out for..

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  3. I wondered whether the physical pain was a manifestation of her mental torture. Often it's a sign of stress, isn't it? So I've been considering whether it's symptomatic of the pressure she's placing herself under, attempting to live up to ideals she developed through church and her morher's expectations, even though it's evident (particularly in the case of her mother) that these expectations are hypocritical.

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  4. Finally, a book that I read before you did so I can make a comment :). I'm wondering if it's because I come from a different culture, but I didn't think the mother was as horrible as everyone seems to perceive her to be, and in Johanne's case, I do think the mother ultimately knows best. What she intends to do – going away with a boy she barely knew, risking her education – is just dumb. Good the mother saves her. Just my 2c 🙂

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  5. Jacqui – I didn't worry too much about it, mainly because I was sure that it would eventually be revealed – but it wasn't! I think it might be some kind of twisted guilty conscience, a constant reminder of her lack of freedom…

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  6. Séamus – Not one I'd heard of, no, but having looked it up on Wikipedia, it's also reminiscent of the backstory introduced in Zweig's 'Chess' (driven mad by solitary confinement). Obviously, there's a whole sub-genre of confinement-lit out there 😉

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  7. mee – Yes, it probably is 😉 Seriously though, I do think Asian readers would probably sympathise with the mother a lot more than Western readers would. I've been reading a lot of Korean literature this year, and several books have seemed to praise mothers for behaviour which would border on abuse back home. Still, I can't say I'd agree with your sympathy – some of her behaviour was just too strange…

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