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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.

Book subscription packages – are they worth it?

Until this year I’d never experienced any of the subscription packages run by publishers or book shops. But somehow in 2018 I’ve ended up as a customer for three of these with mixed experiences.

The Random Book Club

At the end of last year a blogger (wish I could remember who you are) talked about a second hand book shop in Scotland that had decided to start a subscription service as a new way of generating much needed income.  It was called The Random Book Club and promised a hand-picked book each month in return for £59.

Here’s how they described the service

Sign up and we’ll send you a hand-picked book once a month from our shop, the largest second-hand bookshop in Scotland. And with an element of surprise. You won’t have any idea what it’s going to be until it arrives.

Of the twelve books, roughly half will be fiction, half non-fiction. Every book you receive will be hand-picked from our shop; there will be no Book Club, Readers Union or Reader’s Digest reprints and all books will be in good condition.  And you get to keep the books.

The serendipity aspect was what really appealed to me.

I wish I could say this has been worth doing but sadly it’s not the case. The books I’ve received haven’t really been of interest. The first was a biography of Richard Burton that I’d already read. Then came a little dictionary of the origin of words in the English language. I can’t remember the ones in the middle but the most recent was about the migration West in the United States. All of them have gone unread to the charity shop. Not one has been fiction so, since I have a few months left to go, I’ve asked if the remaining books can be fiction.

Asymptote Book Club

“The best of
global literature
delivered to you

I think it was Marina Sofia at Finding Time to Write that first put me on to the Asymptote Book Club.  They promised to give me “fiction which will inspire and challenge”  via “exciting new works by emerging voices and beloved authors … from all over the globe”  My own attempts to read from a broader range of countries had stalled a little so this seemed like the perfect way to get back on track.

Ok full disclosure here.

I’ve managed to read only one of the books they’ve sent so far.

chilli bean clanThis was a book from a Chines author, by Yan Ge. The Chilli Bean Paste Clan was enjoyable and suited my mood at the time. Others that are waiting for my attention do look appealing and are exactly what Asymptote promised in terms of coming from many different parts of the world.

We’ve had,  for example, Aranyak, which is from a Bengali author and I Didn’t Talk by the Brazilian author Beatriz Bracher. In between we’ve been taken to to a small village in northern Norway during an Arctic winter, and a Naples apartment filled with haunting memories of the past.

There are different packages available: a three months’ subscription for people who just want a taste of what’s on offer before, possibly, committing fully.  I went for the year thinking I needed that time to fully appreciate whether this is for me. At the moment, even though I haven’t actually read the books, I’m thinking I’ll continue into next year.


My subscription to Bookishly came as a birthday gift from my sister. This is a company that started up in 2009 under a different name and sells various book-related items like prints and stationery. They have different book subscription packages. The one I have is their Tea and Book Club package where each month I receive a little bundle containing some stationery, a speciality tea, a bookmark and a vintage book (ie used).

The package is beautifully packed. I like the way they wrap the book separately so you get an additional surprise. This is the most recent delivery: two sheets of very high quality wrapping paper (almost too nice to use!); a bookmark, 4 tea bags containing Egyptian Camomile tea.

Bookishly package

Inside the package is a Penguin Edition of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. I’ve read the book three times already but still like the idea of having a Penguin edition. Last month’s package was also a Penguin edition – of The Fall by Albert Camus, which is one I’ve not read.

Bookishly package 2

Overall I’ve enjoyed getting these little surprises through the letterbox though my gift subscription is now at an end.  I’m unlikely to continue, not because I don’t rate the service, but there are only so many books I can read in one year and I don’t want my reading choices too heavily dictated by what other people select on my behalf.

And my overall verdict on book subscriptions?

A mixed reaction really.

On the positive side, there’s an element of fun in receiving books that you haven’t personally selected.

The downside is that you could end up with a lot of books which are not to your taste and which you would never have selected for yourself. No matter how good the price of the package sounds, if you end up giving away half of them then it’s money wasted that you could have spent on books you really do want.  I may buy another subscription at some point in the future but I’ll know then to be a lot more particular in choosing the service.

What’s been your experience with subscription services? Have you actually read the books you received? Any companies or service providers you would recommend particularly?


The Chilli Bean Paste Clan by Yan Ge [book review]


Moon Cakes

Traditional Chinese Moon Cakes

Bean paste is a stable of Asian cuisine but I suspect for Westerners it’s an acquired taste. I tried the sweet variety a few times when I happened to be in China during the Moon Cake festival when the tradition is to present friends, colleagues and families with baked pastries  filled with a paste made from red bean paste. (international brands like Haagen Daz have muscled in with an ice-cream version).

But my colleagues wanted me to experience the traditional version.  The texture was fine but I would have liked a little extra sweetness. Nothing to really dislike but would I swap them for the British tradition of Hot Cross Buns? Sorry but no.

However, I never got to try the hot, spicy version of bean paste, a concoction relished by the inhabitants of Yan Ge’s fictional town of Pringle in The Chilli Bean Paste Clan. The spicier and the more the paste makes them sweat, the better they like it.

 The thing is, the townsfolk grew up with a hole in their tongues. In fact, they were almost born eating Sichuan pepper powder. Even rice porridge needed mala: the numbing, tingling ma of Sichuan pepper and the hot, spicy la of the chilli. They could not imagine life without that numbing-hot duo.

The paste is made in huge fermentation vats which contain “a bubbling mixture of broad beans which had been left to go mouldy  to which were added crushed chilli pepper and seasonings like star anise, bay leaves and great handfuls of salt. As the days went by in the hot sunshine, the chilli peppers fermented, releasing their oil and a smell which was at first fragrant, then sour.”

It’s upon this product that the fortune of the Duan-Xue family is based. Youngest son  Shengqiang was destined from an early age to run the Mayflower Chilli Bean Paste Factory. His clever, handsome older brother, Duan Zhiming, got to leave the town and become a university professor and his sister Coral Xue built a career as a TV news presenter.

The matriarch of the family, the formidable “Gran”, is approaching  her eightieth birthday so the siblings re-unite to organise a celebration that must be grand and classy, as befitting the family’s status, but absolutely not tacky. Skeletons come out of the closet and old rivalries are re-awakened as the big day gets nearer.

The Chilli Bean Paste Clan is essentially a tale of a family with secrets. It’s told through the eyes of  Xingxing, the daughter of Shengqiang and his glamorous wife Anqin. It’s clear she looks upon her father with affection yet the tone is irreverent for Xingxing holds no illusions about his propensity to drink and smoke heavily nor his serial womanising. Sex, nights out with his friends and plenty of food are what keep him sane as he tries to juggle the demands of his wife and mother (and keep his mistress hidden). The result is a series of humorous incidents which culminate in a personal crisis for Shengqiang and a threat to his mother’s reputation.

chilli bean clanI found my sympathies going towards Shengqiang despite his attitude towards women. As a young man his bossy mother pushed into a lowly job at the chilli bean factory , insisting he had to earn his spurs the hard way, stirring the giant fermentation vessels  Little wonder that Shengqiang has always felt he was second fiddle to his brother whose achievements his mother never lets him forget. His mother even chose his wife for him, deciding that Anqin’s family associations with the Party could help further her own family’s fortunes.

Shengqiang longs for a time when life was so much simpler. When he could hang out with his gang, play poker, get drunk and end up in a fight. But he, like the town in which he grew up has changed.  Gone are the stalls and pushcarts where he could get noodles or cold dressed rabbit and chilli turnips spring rolls, Sichuan eggy pancakes and griddled buns. Gone too are the scissor menders and knife-grinders. Even the familiar faces from his boyhood have gone in the name of ‘progress.’

… the whole of Pringle Town had changed. The cypresses and camphor trees of his childhood had been chopped down, the squeezed-in streets had been wrenched wider (but only a tad) and bright blue railings kept motorized and non motorized vehicles apart. … The result was that neither ars nor bicycles could get through.  And as if that were not bad enough, the edges of the streets were ostentatiously ‘greened’ with saplings brought in from god knows where. … Worst of all the passers-by changed. It dawned on Dad that, without him being aware of it happening, the people walking up and down the street were strangers.

I suspect many of us who lived in small towns have seen similar declines as family-owned shops have been edged out by the big brands clustered on the fringes in souless precincts.

If only Dad had been allowed to tell his own story.  Having his daughter as the narraor proved an issue for me. I know omniscient narrators can’t be everywhere and we make some allowances when they still relay conversations that they couldn’t possibly have heard. Xingxing tries to get around this by occasionally slipping in a remark about how she got her information from her parents, her gran and her father  It’s believable up to a point but the further I got into the book, the more this issue niggled. No matter how close a relationship she had with Shengqiang I can’t believe he would have shared that amount of detail about his visits to a prostitute when he was younger or how he sated his sexual appetite with his mistress.

Words Without Borders described The Chilli Bean Paste Clan as China’s “best untranslated book” when it was published in 2014. It’s taken four years for the English translation by Nicky Harman to appear via Balestier Press. Asymptote Book Club members like myself got to read it when the club chose it for their May selection. It’s not a book I would have chosen personally although I would like to read more works by Chinese authors. I enjoyed it overall – it fitted my mood at the time – though its not a book I am likely to recall in a few year’s time.


Yan Ge has twelve young adult books to her name. She has been called one of the most exciting writers to emerge from contemporary China. She is the winner of an English PEN award. The Chilli Bean Paste Clan is intended as the first part of a trilogy of adult fiction


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