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Love by Hanne Ørstavik: Motherly Love Under Scrutiny

The folks responsible for selecting the Asympote Book Club titles certainly know how to find some gems in translated fiction. I’ve yet to read one from my subscription package that hasn’t been thought-provoking, inventive or memorable. Sometimes, as in the case of Love by the Norwegian author Hanne Ørstavik, all three.

This novella questions the accepted notion that an emotional bond exists between mothers and their offspring that is both deep and unbreakable.

A horrid mother featured in another of Hanne Ørstavik’s books – The Blue Room – in which a mother’s locks her daughter in her bedroom to prevent her going abroad with a boyfriend. We’re clearly meant to see this as an action born out of intense love. In Love however, the issue is more about the absence of a mother’s attachment and devotion to her young son.

Vibeke has recently moved to a new home in the north of Norway with her eight-year-old son Jon. She’s enjoying a new job as an arts and culture manager, but there are hints that she finds the real world a challenge. One of the first things we learn about her is that she uses books to escape that reality:

She wishes she could read all the time, sitting in bed with the duvet pulled up, with coffe, lots of cigarettes, and a warm nightdress on.

It then quickly becomes evident that while Jon is always thinking of his mother, she would often prefer to forget his existence. His chatter about his train set and a picture he has seen, is an unwelcome intrusion in her world of day dreams about fashion and romance. “Can’t you just go, she thinks to herself. Find something to do, play or something?”

On one icy winter night, on the eve of his ninth birthday, Jon does indeed find something else to do. He decides to go out and sell raffle tickets around the neighbourhood. It will, he imagines, leave the way clear for his mum to make him a special birthday cake.

Vibeke has no such plans. She’s completely forgotten about her son’s birthday. Instead of baking, she takes a bath, paints her toe nails and then decides to head to the library. She never notices her son is not in the house. She thinks he’s in bed asleep.

From this point, Hanne Ørstavik’s narrative becomes palpably more atmospheric and menacing. I found it an incredibly tense experience to read this book because every time mother and son encountered a stranger or went somewhere else in the town, I was afraid some calamity would befall them. It’s so cleverly written that we never know whether it will be Jon or his mother who ends up in the greatest danger.

Will Jon be abducted or abused by the old man who takes Jon down into his rank-smelling basement? When Vibeke goes off with a fairground worker is she being driven to a nightclub or to her death? There’s a strange woman at the fairground with long wig-like white hair, white gloves, a white cape, and tall white boots. When she later stops to offer Jon a lift is she acting as fairy godmother or wicked witch?

“Didn’t your mother ever tell you not to go with strangers? Not everyone’s as nice as me,” she tells him. In fact every stranger in this book becomes a figure of suspicion.

Though it has the atmosphere of menace and dread associated with thrillers, Love is essentially a study of a relationship and whether looking after a child’s physical needs – Vibeke does feed Jon – and showing a passing interest in his stories, can be said to constitute love.

Hanne Ørstavik examines this question using a ingenious dual consciousness mode of narration. It’s not just a matter of alternating the points of view between Vibeke and Jon in successive chapters. What Ørstavik does instead is to link the two perspectives so closely they flow from one to another across, and often within paragraphs.

We cut from Vibeke as she leaves an all-night cafe and gets into a car, to Jon as he walks along a road when a car pulls up next to him.

The engine idles, puffing its exhaust. Jon feels its warmth against his lower legs.

He’s turned the engine off but left the ignition on, the heater’s running and he’s switched the radio back on …

The text reads as if they are the same episode but in fact that second sentence has switched back again to Vibeke.

Mother and son do not occupy the same vehicle that night yet the narrative structure makes it seem they are connected. Is the idea that there is an indissoluble bond still in existence between them? That’s hard to reconcile with the fact that throughout the whole night we never get a sense Vibeke has given a single thought to the child left alone at home. In fact we learn that he is not only shut out from her thoughts, he is shut out of the home having forgotten his key.

For such a slim work (it runs to just 125 pages), reading Love is an astonishingly tense and completely engrossing experience. It’s hard intially to avoid being critical of Vibeke’s attitude to her son, a boy who is imaginative, curious and utterly devoted to his mother. She comes across as shallow and self-centred but we can also sympathise with her desire for some love (the adult kind) in her life. And while she doesn’t make the child the centre of her world, there are signs that, in her own way, she does love him.

Love by Hanne Ørstavik: Endnotes

About the Book: Love was first published in 1997 under the Norwegian title Kjærlighet. In 2006 it was voted the 6th best Norwegian book of the last 25 years. The book was the first of her novels to be published in the United States,’ it was shortlisted for the National Book Awards in the category Translated Literature.

About the Author:

Hanne Ørstavik was born in the far north of Norway but moved to Oslo at the age of 16. Her career as an author began in 1994 with the publication of the novel Hakk (Cut) but it was three years later when  Love was published, that she began to gain recognition. Since then she has written several acclaimed and much discussed novels and received a host of literary prizes. In June 2014, Periene Press published the first ever English translation of one of her novels – The Blue Room.

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