After this week’s first trip to Norway saw us following two people having very different evenings, today’s journey takes us in another direction. This time our focus is all on one woman as she heads off into the wilderness to challenge herself and attempt to complete her research. However, given the harsh environment she finds herself in, you have to question her motives, and as we learn more about her and her life, it seems as if the mission is less a question of what she’s come for than of what she’s left behind…
Gøhril Gabrielsen’s Ankomst (translated by Deborah Dawkin, review copy courtesy of Peirene Press) is a psychological novel taking us to a remote part of Norway’s northern coast in the company of an environmental scientist on a research trip. She’s decided to spend several months living in an old hut and recording data from a small weather station, information that will allow her to complete her research on migratory birds. For now, she’s alone, but with her partner, Jo, planning to join her later on, she begins her adventure full of energy and enthusiasm.
Inevitably, though, things don’t go quite as smoothly as expected. Quite apart from suffering through the odd day of wretched weather, our friend begins to suspect that Jo isn’t all that keen on making the trip out, with every Skype call seeming to bring new excuses. In addition, the constant solitude begins to wear her down, and her mind begins to play tricks on her, with occasional black-outs and suspicions of objects moving of their own accord. Is she starting to lose it? Or, more disturbingly, is she not as alone as she thinks?
Ankomst is Gabrielsen’s second book published by Peirene, with The Looking Glass Sisters (translated by John Irons) having appeared in English back in 2015. The earlier novel was told by a woman confined to bed while life passes her by, and this one uses a very similar style, despite the differences in substance. It’s another psychological work in which the reader is confined within the narrator’s head, seeing what she sees, and no more, but again there’s a suspicion that we can’t always take her at her word, even if there are very different reasons here to be wary of what we’re being told.
The first few chapters, which see the narrator arriving at the remote peninsula, her home for the coming months, set the story up nicely:
As I watched the lights from his boat vanish into the darkness behind the headland, my isolation from the outside world became an unarguable reality. The nearest settlement is 100 kilometres away. In summer, on foot, the trip might take three or four days. In winter, especially during the darkest months, it would be plain irresponsible to venture out into this unmarked, impassable terrain.
p.10 (Peirene Press, 2020)
Brushing these grim thoughts aside, she gets to business marking a track to the coast, setting up the weather station and going back and forth on her snowmobile when possible to check the readings. When you throw in the work needed to melt snow for drinking and washing, and the Skype calls with Jo every couple of days, this first period keeps her busy enough to forget any misgivings she might have about her stay.
It’s when the novelty wears off, though, that things start to go downhill. Quite apart from the dawning realisation that Jo isn’t as keen on joining her as she’d convinced herself, she finds herself with hours of alone time, much of which she spends pondering a story found in a history pamphlet she discovers, regarding a house that burned down 140 years ago close to the site of her hut. Using the few details given, she conjures up an elaborate tale of what might have happened, imagining the life of the family and their hardship.
However, in truth this is all a mere projection of her own past, and as the story progresses, we’re drip-fed more information about what came before the trip, including the end of her marriage to a man simply denoted as S. The reader will initially be wary, wondering how she could leave her daughter behind, but as more information about the break-up is revealed, we gradually realise that S. is the reason for her self-imposed isolation. Yes, there’s an academic purpose to her trip, but it’s her personal life that has led her to rush off into the unknown.
Unlike The Looking-Glass Sisters, which was rather slow to get moving, Ankomst is an excellently paced look at a woman slowly falling apart, both physically and mentally, in the middle of nowhere. The narrator seems to know what she’s doing, but it’s on the few occasions that others enter the story that we begin to doubt her and reconsider what we’ve been told. The captain is immediately concerned when he sees her injuries on his return visit, and Jo’s reactions to her Skype calls go from evasiveness when questioned regarding his arrival to shock when he sees how his partner’s condition has deteriorated in just a few weeks.
And yet, just as we begin to think we can’t trust her, strange occurrences give us pause for thought. There’s an unexplained fall, objects moving around and strange sounds disturbing her sleep:
No, I don’t like it. Lying here like this, listening to my surroundings. I have a fever. My senses are as fragile as glass, the light is too sharp, the sounds too loud, the bed-clothes too rough. I’m shivering, I’ve got goosebumps and I feel horribly shaky. It’s hard work, feeling my imagination wreak havoc in this feverish body. Even the cupboards and walls seem to stare back at me with expectant faces. And now I can hear it again, the sound of moaning, albeit weaker this time. Is it comng from me or the stove? Is it just the embers dying? The logs collapsing and turning to ash? (pp.84/5)
Is it her imagination or is someone else around? We’re never really sure whether this is a manifestation of her paranoia or something more.
Building to a tense finale, Gabrielsen’s novel is an excellent, thought-provoking read, even if the title is slightly misleading. You see ankomst is the Norwegian word for arrival, but that’s only half the story. The truth is that this is less a book about where the protagonist has come to than about what she’s running away from. Having gone as far away from her past as she can manage, the narrator hopes that she can move on with her life. Sadly, though, you sense that the things she’s fleeing aren’t that easy to escape from, especially when most of them are in her mind…