Love – Hanne Ørstavik (1997, trans. Martin Aitken, 2018) 136 pages
Like The Blue Room, Love features a dysfunctional parent/child relationship, although not one as determinedly destructive as Johanne and her mother in The Blue Room. Whereas that was suffocating and controlling, Jon and his mother Vibeke are almost at the opposite extreme with a child at risk of neglect.
I don’t have kids but I would say that having your eight year-old son roam the snowy streets in northern Norway alone in the depths of the night with no gloves on, while you prevaricate over whether to sleep with a man who picked you up at a funfair, is probably not the best parenting style…
Jon is waiting for his mother Vibeke to return from work. Tomorrow is his birthday and he believes she is going to bake him a cake.
“And then she comes, and he recognises the sound in an instant; he hears it with his tummy, it’s my tummy that remembers the sound, not me, he thinks to himself.”
Although in the same house and having dinner together, they’re not overly communicative. Vibeke has a shower and makes herself look good should she bump into her attractive work colleague in town. Jon leaves the house, returns again, then leaves again, with Vibeke only vaguely conscious of his whereabouts.
The town is far north and it has been snowing. Jon wanders the dark streets:
“Sounds become weightless in the cold. Everything does. As if he were a bubble of air himself, ready at any moment to float into the sky and vanish into the firmament.”
Meanwhile Vibeke has found the library closed, so she wanders round the newly arrived fairground. An attractive fairground worker picks her up and takes her back to his caravan.
“She feels like they share something now. It feels like pushing a boat from the shore, the moment the boat comes free of the sand and floats, floats on the water.”
We know Vibeke had Jon when she was young and that it has been the two of them for a while. However, Vibeke seems pretty oblivious not only to the safety of her son but to the feelings and motivations of other people. Despite being attracted to one another, the situation between Vibeke and the man never really takes off. She keeps holding back because she thinks that talking too much has hampered previous relationships.
“My mistake is to think too much when I talk, it slows everything down, repartee just isn’t there for me.”
However, there comes a point where you do actually have to communicate in some way. When they go to a bar and he chats to the barmaid, then disappears back inside leaving Vibeke in the car outside, she thinks:
“Maybe he’s working on keeping a hold on himself, and the control he thereby achieves is something he needs to cling to.”
Um, no. He’s just lost interest and moved onto the next pretty and more available girl.
Meanwhile Jon has spent some time with a schoolfriend (whose parents are happy to have him leave and wander back home alone at midnight) and ends up getting into a stranger’s car, which at least offsets hypothermia for a while.
Although remarkably self-possessed and bright, Jon is clearly suffering from his mother’s lack of care. He is trying to stop himself blinking and people comment it.
“He wishes no one noticed and that what was wrong with him was under his clothes or inside him.”
Throughout, he clings to the idea that Vibeke is at home baking him a birthday cake which I found completely heart-breaking.
The narrative of Love alternates between Vibeke and Jon almost paragraph by paragraph. This isn’t nearly as confusing as it sounds, it works well as the two of them have evenings that echo and reflect each other in surprising ways. They also both put themselves in risky situations and the story is tense and very believable. It’s a novella that creeps under your skin and stays there.
“She wishes she could read all the time, sitting in bed with the duvet pulled up, with coffee, lots of cigarettes and a warm nightdress on.”