LOVE, BY HANNE ØRSTAVIK, TRANSLATED BY MARTIN AITKEN
Hanne Ørstavik’s Love follows eight-year-old Jon and his mother Vibeke as each wanders the night in a cold, snowy village in northern Norway. From the first page, Ørstavik’s understated prose and sparse dialogue trace a relationship between mother and son that is as dry and powdery as Jon’s failed snowballs. As the novel flits effortlessly between these two points of view, the reader is swept up in two separate egos, each on a muted quest for the human connections they are unable to accept from each other.
Ørstavik is at her most striking when capturing the spirit of inexperience: Jon’s quiet acceptance of the world around him and his unselfconscious interactions with it, as when he puts a whole cookie in his mouth “and tries to suck it soft without breaking it,” offer a sweet genuineness to the novel. But what feels natural and sympathetic in the son gets twisted in the mother: with a thousand “maybe"s and “must be"s, she explores justifications for peoples’ behavior in a desperate and immature attempt to provoke intimacy between herself and others. In Love, the disingenuous folds into the organic as if into a batter; the novel feels constantly on the verge of something irrevocable. This tension lingers like cigarette smoke in the cold, ultimately bringing Vibeke and Jon together again at the end of the night, but further apart than either of them ever fully realize. Martin Aitken is to be applauded for so conscientiously bringing this soft-spoken, full-hearted novel into the English language.