A while back, I received an email from someone at Archipelago Books, asking if I’d be interested in taking a look at a book of theirs that will be released next year. Ever the opportunist, I agreed, and also responded with a short list of the publishers’ recent releases that I fancied taking a look at – and wouldn’t you know it, I was lucky enough to get a few of those in the post. Today’s review, then, looks at one of these ‘presents’, a powerful novel by a familiar name, so it’s time to wrap up warm and head off up north, where we’ll meet a woman with a slightly unusual job, and more than a few issues to work through…
Hanne Ørstavik’s The Pastor (translated by Martin Aitken) takes place in the far-north of Norway, where Liv, the titular pastor, has just been transferred, pausing her theoretical studies to gain some practical experience instead. She shares her large house with a family living downstairs, and between her duties, she gets out and about in the community, attending coffee mornings and concerts, while also visiting parishioners in need of her assistance.
One such visit comes after a tragic incident, the suicide of a teenage girl on the outskirts of town. It’s an event that hits Liv hard, and with good reason. The roots of her decision to leave her studies unfinished and come to the remote town lie in what happened back in Germany, where her friendship with Kristiane, a performance artist, ended in a similar manner. Now Liv must try to work through the trauma she’s been repressing, all the while unaware that she’s not the only one affected by the recent death in the town.
Ørstavik can always be counted on to provide an engaging read, such as the mother-daughter conflict novel The Blue Room and the simply devastating Love, and with The Pastor, she’s come up with another moving and engaging read. Part of what gives the novel its mood is the remote, wintry setting, with the wind and the cold reflecting Liv’s feelings, making it seem as if summer will never make its way to these latitudes.
In many ways, though, the book is a character study, showing us a female pastor who is slightly out of place in many ways (such as in the seminar where she’s one of only two women, the other being a pastor’s wife…). It’s unsurprising that she has doubts about how suited she is to this life:
But that’s not true, Liv. I heard my sensible self protest. You’re a pastor, you preach the word of God, and stand before a congregation. It means something to those needing comfort that you’re there? Does it really? I asked out loud, almost wishing I could turn and look the voice in the eye, make it see how empty its words were, and make it stop.
p.60 (Archipelago Books, 2021)
She does her best to keep going, to do her duty, but she’s haunted by memories of Kristiane, and by the suspicion that she’s simply not cut out to be a pastor, unable to really connect with those she’s supposed to help.
Part of the enjoyment of The Pastor, then, lies in following Liv along her path to (hopefully) recovery and acceptance, and over the course of the novel, she does get involved with other people. There’s the family downstairs (the widowed Nanna, and her daughters Maja and Lillen) and a man she meets at a concert, whose arrival sparks some serious flirting, anchors rooting her in real life, something she desperately needs. Yet despite all this, there’s the old tendency towards self-sabotage:
Time after time, I destroyed everything around me, no matter what I did, or tried to do. There was an imbalance, between me and those around me. I had no business being among them. That time with Kristiane. What had I done? What had I said? It had all come pouring out of me. And afterwards I’d resolved to never, never again get myself so worked up like that. Because when I did, no one ever wanted to stay with me. They left. (p.192)
Is history set to repeat itself in this small, remote town? Again, when it all seems too difficult, Liv begins to push people away, retreating into herself.
A lesson Liv must learn is the difference between theory and practice. Her calling is to help others by easing their pain, showing people a way to move on, but she feels like a fraud given her own inability to get past Kristiane’s death. The main thrust of the book, then, is Liv working through her own trauma in order to be able to help those around her. There’s at least one person close to her who really needs her help, if only she can see it…
The Pastor is cleverly constructed, blending Liv’s current life, and her bitter-sweet memories of Germany and Kristiane, with elements of her thesis on a small 1852 rebellion by Sami residents. This latter strand provides a critique of Norwegian colonialism and the insistence of the intruders on everyone following their way of life (ironically enough, when Liv visits the scene of the uprising to attend the seminar, we’re shown that little of this colonial mindset has changed since the event…). Ørstavik frequently switches between the different strands, and this can occasionally be (deliberately) jarring, especially when memories of Kristiane are evoked by something Liv sees or hears.
As always, Aitken’s excellent work is the key to the success of the book in English, and his own words on the back-cover blurb best describe what makes Ørstavik’s work, well, work:
Hanne’s deceptively uncomplicated prose is an exacting task for any translator. Everything’s below the surface. There’s a lightness of touch to her sentences, and a movingly human insight that makes the writing as luminous as the snow of northern Norway.
And who am I to argue? The Pastor is certainly an atmospheric read at times, with its wind-swept plains and icy silences, and even the book design plays on that. We have the bleakness of white text on a black background, along with a black-and-white photo that becomes even eerier once you’ve read the book. No spoilers…
The Pastor is another excellent book by an accomplished writer, an absorbing tale of a woman at a crossroads, trying to find the strength to keep walking her path. I’m very glad I was cheeky enough, like Oliver, to ask for more, and that’s not the end of the story. You see, amongst the books I received, there’s another of Ørstavik’s works – so here’s to another vicarious trip to Norway in the not-too-distant future.