The Blue Room by Hanne Ørstavik
The Blue Room is a short psychological novel about a naive young girl and the troubling relationship with her mother.
Johanne and mum live together in an apartment in Oslo ( we don’t get to know what happened to dad). Johanne is a psychology student who is fascinated by the concepts to which she is introduced on her course and even if she sometimes struggles with the material she is required to read she is determined to finish her course.
Shes rather a lonely figure. She cycles to college, goes to the library, attends lectures and then cycles home. She has no life outside college, the apartment and her church: no social life and only one close friend who is about to become a priest and move away from the city. She yearns to be independent yet also feels a strong pull of responsibility towards her mother.
The relationship with her mother is in fact the key theme of this book. Johanne veers between wanting to earn her mother’s approval and to be a good daughter even if that means tip toeing around her likes and dislikes but at the same time she resents how her mother dominates her life.
Her voice seemed to stick to the walls, so its imprint would be permanent and I’d hear it whenever I walked past, Mum’s voice screaming at me, echoing between the walls, like the noise of a helicopter scouring the terrain, nothing escaping its scrutiny.
Matters come to a head when Johanne acquires a boyfriend with whom she quickly becomes besotted and experiences an intense sexual awakening. She agrees to go off to the USA with him for three weeks but on the morning she is due to leave she wakes to find she has been locked in her bedroom. There is no means of escape since the room is on the fourth story of the apartment block. As the day proceeds she has many hours in which she reflects on her life and her future.
How much of her account we can rely upon is questionable. Johanne paints her mother as a manipulative, predator figure who questions every action her daughter takes. But Johanne also has a vivid imagination, especially regarding the sexual exploits of others – during a church service for example she imagines the choir boys in paedophiliac situations, she also has a vision of a young girl chained in a room visited by men looking for sex. Has her mother locked her in because she is jealous or fearful of the relationship with a boy she has known for only three weeks or is it thet she is genuinely afraid the girl cannot cope with life? Indeed Johanne herself admits that her grip on life is none too firm:
I have to struggle for what they (her fellow students) take for granted. I have to play it safe. Have to stay on track., every day. Its the little steps that count, straight ahead … anything else would result in stepping off course, which would lead to another little step and another and another. I’d lose my balance completely ….. They play with life, with possibilities. For me, my studies are like a tightrope I am balancing on, life will begin only when I’ve reached the other side. Only when I’m standing there triumphantly, only then I think to myself will I be free.
Even by the end of this short book we are not entirely certain whether she will be able to get to the other of that tightrope or will always be dangling in the middle.
This is a terrific book, especially for people who enjoy unreliable narrators and books that don’t end with neatly tied conclusions. Kudos to the team at Peirene Press for ringing this work to an international audience. Such a shame that there is nothing else by Hanne Ørstavik yet available in English. I would be first in the queue if there were.
The Book: The Blue Room by Hanne Ørstavik was published in June 2014.
The Author: Hanne Ørstavik is one of Norway’s leading writers. Since publication of her first book in 1969 she has received several prizes including the Brage Prize, her country’s most prestigious literary prize.
My edition: From Pereine Press as title number 14 their coming of age series. The translater is Deborah Dawkin.
Why I read this: I bought a few Pereine editions in 2015 but have never got around to reading them. The Chutes and Ladders challenge run by Hard Book Habit galvanised me into action.