Ti Amo is, without question, the most beautifully written and affecting book about love and grief I’ve read this year.
In less than 100 pages Hanne Ørstavik captures the complex emotions of a woman conscious that illness will soon separate her from her beloved husband. She knows his pancreatic cancer is incurable and he has less than a year to live. If he knows this too, then he never admits it nor shows any sign of wanting to know the prognosis.
Their life since his diagnosis is full of silences and things left unsaid. They never talk about the rapid advance of his illness or his increasing reliance on ever stronger pain medication. They don’t discuss the future. Nor do they consider how she will cope without him.
Why can’t we speak the truth? Why can’t we say things the way they are? Why do they have to hide your death from you? Do you really not want to know, not be in contact with, not feel, the truth about yourself?
The one emotion over which there is no veil of silence is their love for each other. ‘Ti amo,’ (I love you) they frequently tell each other. Words they cling to when everything else feels unstable.
The unnamed narrator of Ti Amo is a Norwegian novelist living in Milan with her Italian publisher husband. The book she writes is a type of chronicle which contrasts their relationship before and after illness struck.
The first glorious years of their relationship were full of literary festivals, conferences and seminars. But they also found time to dine in swish restaurants and explore the world, relishing wine tasting in Bordeaux and watching with fascination the funeral pyres along the Ganges.
Now his days are so racked with pain that just walking to the pharmacy a few blocks away or to his office can take all his energy. They find pleasure now in simpler activities — tea on the balcony watching wild birds peck at suet cake. An occasional visit to a favourite neighbourhood pasticceria for hot chocolate. But mostly each day he spends hours in bed, either too exhausted to work or in a drug-induced sleep.
Understandably Ti Amo is a novel seared with pain and anguish. It offers a window into mix of emotions associated with bereavement; the partner’s distress when they see their loved one racked with pain and can do little to help. The longing for the suffering to be over yet feeling unready or unable to say farewell.
You, with whom I belong. You, who make the night and the darkness our own, in our big bed, a place where I can touch you, sense that you exist and feel secure.
It’s frank yet tender and compassionate, it’s emotional heft enlarged by its resonance with the author’s own experience. Like her narrator Hanne Ørstavik married her Italian born publisher and moved to Milan to be with him. She too lost her own husband to cancer in 2020, two years before Ti Amo was published. Ti Amo is however not a simple autobiography; it’s a novel that explores the nature of love in the most challenging of circumstances and asks how can we survive when the person we love most is about to die.
Ti Amo by Hanne Ørstavik: Footnotes
Norwegian born Hanne Ørstavik began her career as an author in 1994 with the publication of the novel Hakk (Cut) . She gained widespread recognition with her later novella Love. (see my review here) , Since then she has written several acclaimed 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 (also reviewed on this blog)
Ti Amo, translated by Martin Aitken, was published by Archipelago Books in North America and And Other Stories in the UK in 2022.
translated by Martin Aitken