Novella a Day in May 2020 #15

Often I am Happy – Jens Christian Grondahl (2016 trans. the author 2017) 167 pages

I really enjoyed the female narrator’s voice in Often I Am Happy. She is an ordinary, decent person who can also be quite cranky and sarcastic. It’s a woman’s voice that we don’t hear in fiction very often.

Ellinor is grieving her husband Georg, who was married first to her best friend Anna. Anna has been dead forty years and in her grief for Georg, Ellinor talks to Anna.

“You were my country, first one and then the other, and now I am stateless.”

She tells Anna about her life with Georg and raising Anna’s children. She is clear-sighted but also compassionate:

“He was so considerate, and I think he had come to be really fond of me. The years passed, mind you, and in the end we belonged together, simply because we lived side by side. We underestimate the power of habit while we’re young, and we underestimate the grace of it, Strange word, but there it is.”

Ellinor is seventy years old, and is a woman who has lived long enough to know who she is and to accept herself and the world without sentimentality. This means she sometimes loses the social niceties that her suburban step-children and their partners wish she had kept. Ellinor was raised by a single mother with little money, and never really felt she fitted in with the bourgeois surroundings she found herself in as an adult:

“since you died, the women of the commercial upper middle classes have found a post-colonial solution to the difficult arithmetic problem of career multiplied with self-realisation plus motherhood. You get yourself a third-world servant and call it cultural exchange, but nine out of ten live in the basement where they can Skype with the children they’ve had to leave behind”

Ellinor decides to leave the suburbs and move back to the multi-cultural, urban area she was raised in. Her family do not understand this choice, and she begins to withdraw from them, uncertain that she ever really fitted in with them anyway:

“There is nothing like a conflict to do the difficult work for you. It is an underrated remedy, cowardly as we are, but it makes everything so much easier. Free at last, I thought, and stepped out onto my bike.”

Ellinor is not bitter, and she’s not bitchy. She’s actually content, and as the title tells us, although deeply sad in her grief, she’s doing ok. But she has reached a point where she no longer compromises her view or actions, because why should she need to?

“Apparently, nothing is more purifying for people’s self-esteem than to place themselves at the very edge of someone else’s grief and show that they are not at all dizzy.”

Often I Am Happy is a wonderful character study of an older woman, and a portrait of deep grief experienced within a life that still needs to be led on the individual’s own terms.

“his absence felt like a lump growing inside me, making me suffocate. I never felt so alone. One is used to reality responding or just resounding with whatever one thinks or feels. Death shuts up the living; the real is our enemy in the long run.”

Novella a Day in May #20

The Murder of Halland – Pia Juul (2009, trans. Martin Aitken 2012, 189 pages)

This novella is published by Peirene Press who specialise in publishing contemporary European novellas, aimed to be read in one sitting. The Murder of Halland is part of their Small Epic series.

The story opens with a domestic scene, Bess and her partner Halland watching a detective series before he goes to bed and she returns to her study to continue her work as a successful novelist. By the third page however, she is woken by a man at the door claiming he is arresting her for the murder of her husband: Halland has been shot dead in the town square outside their flat.

“The wet cobbles glistened in the morning light. Normally, the square would be deserted. Now it was filling with people. Roses bloomed against the yellow and whitewashed walls.”

While The Murder of Halland could be classed as a crime novel, I think this is misleading.  The focus is not on finding out who killed Halland but rather the grief of Bess as she ricochets around the small town in confusion, discovering Halland wasn’t quite who she thought he was and wondering if she is grieving in the right way.

“I could see why Halland had hung up the picture. It was our first year together and we were happy. Anyone could see that. At least I could, now. Halland’s hair had turned completely white during his illness, but here his long mane was dark and only just starting to turn in grey. I traced the sharp line of his nose with my finger, his full mouth. He was looking at me, saying something. What did we say to each other in those days? What did we ever say? I couldn’t remember us talking. Did we even say good morning? Yes, we said good morning.”

Bess’ detached narration makes The Murder of Halland an unsettling read. We know it was not a happy relationship, but we don’t know exactly why. We don’t know in what way Halland was ill. All Bess’ relationships seem to occur at a step removed: she has tense phone calls with her mother, a half-hearted reconciliation with her grandfather, an estranged daughter who arrives back in her life but they don’t explore what this means for either of them…

This strange detachment meant that I started to doubt Bess’ reliability as a narrator. When I read crime fiction it’s weirdly, for comfort, partly because I stick to Golden Age, and partly for all the ends to be tied up nice and neatly.  The Murder of Halland is not this type of novel. It leaves the reader with many more questions than answers, most of all through it’s “WHAT????” ending . Surprisingly, I didn’t think this made for an unsatisfactory read. The Murder of Halland is an intriguing character study at a moment of crisis, as complicated and unresolved as life itself.