‘Love’ by Hanne Ørstavik (Review)

It’s always nice when you can work on a theme, and there’s a lot linking my two main posts for this week.  Both take a look at books by Norwegian women, and in each case it’s the second time their work has appeared in English.  More interestingly, though, there are connections in the style, too, with the two writers interested in what’s going on inside their protagonists’ minds.  There’s also one last connection between the books – while the settings are different, they both feature a *lot* of snow 😉

Many readers may know Hanne Ørstavik from her novel The Blue Room (translated by Deborah Dawkin, published by Peirene Press), but her second book to appear in English, Love (translated by Martin Aitken, published by Archipelago Books in the US and And Other Stories in the UK), was actually released first in her home country.  It’s a short novel taking place over the course of a night in a small village in the north of Norway, where Vibeke has moved with her son Jon after getting a new job.  One cold, wintry evening, the boy hears his mother getting home from work, and after a quick meal, the two go their separate ways again for the rest of the day.

However, contrary to expectations, that’s not the end of the night’s activities.  Young Jon decides to go out, both to sell some raffle tickets and get some fresh air, and later on, Vibeke’s decision to drop in at the library leads her on to slightly more daring adventures.  Sadly, though, neither knows where the other is, and as the night draws to a close, we sense that things are unlikely to end well – we’re just not sure how…

Love was a finalist for the (American) National Book Award for Translated Literature in 2018, and in many people’s eyes was a surprise omission from this year’s International Booker Prize longlist (I reserved my library copy believing it would make the cut).  It’s a wonderful, tense novel, simple, yet powerful, and very cleverly constructed, consisting of two stories told side by side, with mother and son leaving the dinner table to spend two very different nights.

Jon is looking forward to his ninth birthday the next day, and the early pages see him daydreaming about what the big day might bring.  Despite his tender years, he’s obviously used to looking out for himself and soon leaves the house alone, with the story describing his encounters with a neighbour, a girl he meets in the street and a woman passing by in a car.  His is a trusting nature, perhaps a little too much so:

“Didn’t your mother ever tell you not to go with strangers?”
She rummages on as she speaks.

“Why not?”
“Not everyone’s as nice as me.”
She looks at him and smiles again.  Her teeth are really quite small.  He gets an urge to feel his own and compare.
“My mom says everyone’s good on the inside.”
p.88 (Archipelago Books, 2018)

When he later sees that his mother isn’t at home, he naïvely believes that she’s out shopping for last-minute presents and starts imagining what they might be.

Alas, that’s definitely not the case.  From the start of Love, there’s a sense that Vibeke is a woman who needs space for herself.  Once her son has taken himself off to his room, she wastes little time in escaping to the library, then heading on to an encounter with a man at the fair that’s about to leave the village.  She assumes that Jon’s taken himself off to bed (he’s not even at home) and decides to go in search of a little fun, and hopefully affection, unaware that she’s making a big mistake.

For anyone who’s tried The Blue Room, there are several familiar elements in this earlier novel, and foremost among these is the slightly twisted parent-child dynamic.  While Jon trusts his mother absolutely, Vibeke is lost in her own world, too concerned about her own life to spare a moment for her son.  At the dinner table, she’s eager for Jon to leave her alone so she can read her book (Can’t you just go?) or get out for a while.  It’s understandable to a certain extent, but early on we sense that it’s more than just wanting ‘me time’, and that there’s a fairly selfish streak to her.

Another similarity between the books is the psychological nature of the texts.  The Blue Room consists almost entirely of Johanne’s thoughts, and a notable feature of that story is the way her logical side suddenly lurches into irrational fears.  This is also evident, albeit in a different way, here in the form of Vibeke’s self-motivation speeches and her constant self-reminders of how she should behave.  Take, for example, the way she talks herself through the night with Tom, the man she met at the fairground:

She pulls her gloves out of her coat pocket and puts them on before wrapping her scarf snugly around her neck.  I’ll leave him alone for a bit, she thinks, that way he’ll see how generous I am.  He can have all the space he needs with me.  We can’t be all things to each other, no one can.  I’m showing him more of me now than if I’d stayed. (p.104)

Yet the reader can see how desperate, and deluded, she is, realising that she’s making a fool of herself in front of the man she’s trying to impress.

The story is interesting enough, but the book is enhanced by its construction and the way the reader is pulled back and forth between the two third-person narratives.  One minute we’re with Jon at the girl’s house, and the next paragraph we find ourself in Tom’s caravan with Vibeke.  These jumps can be unsettling, and it often takes a few seconds for the reader to realise the shift and adjust.  Enhancing this mood are the dreams and fantasies the main characters indulge in, with the writer using these interludes to blur the line between the real and the imagined even further.

Love is a wonderful, fascinating read, a look at a mother’s insecurities and a young boy’s (unfounded) hopes.  The reader is pulled along in their wake, switching between the two journeys and waiting for them to intersect, wondering how it will happen while all the time sensing that the tale won’t end well.  I won’t spoil it for you, but the final pages certainly pack a punch.   What we are left with after an eventful night is an ending that is both surprising but also sadly inevitable…

4 thoughts on “‘Love’ by Hanne Ørstavik (Review)

  1. It’s one of my favourite books of recent years. I love the way that Ørstavik makes every situation that both Jon and Vibeke get involved in seem menacing, partly because they both seem so trusting.


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