Set in a village on the outskirts of Norway, Hanne Ørstavik’s Love tracks the lonesome paths a single mother and her young son take over the course of a single winter’s night.
The novel begins with eight-year-old Jon and his single mother Vibeke together in their quiet house on a cold winter’s evening. In the opening scenes the third-person narrator sketches the details of the protagonists’ isolated lives, alternating every few paragraphs between their perspectives in spare but moving prose. The technique at once propels the narrative forward and makes it read as introspective and full of lifelike details. Readers quickly learn that the family recently has moved to a remote village in northern Norway, Vibeke longs for time apart from her son, and Jon is preoccupied with gaining his mother’s affection.
A series of misunderstandings soon separates mother and son, with each embarking on a different journey just as the sun starts to set. Jon exits the house early on in the story, believing Vibeke wants time alone to bake him a cake for his upcoming ninth birthday. Thinking that her son still is in the house, and not realizing that the following day is his birthday, Vibeke also leaves in an attempt to find a date for the night. She locks the house, inadvertently preventing Jon from reentering it, and the plot picks up speed.
Over the course of the night, both mother and son encounter strange and threatening figures, misinterpret their surroundings, and yearn for affection. Vibeke goes on an unsettling date with a carnival worker, after failing to find anyone at the local library, and Jon frequently has close encounters with malevolent adults. The novel is pervaded by a sense of dread, made all the more intense by the fact that the two protagonists are oblivious to the danger that circles them.
The similarity of the two desolate odysseys, though, only accentuates their one glaring difference: Jon obsesses over where Vibeke might be, whereas Vibeke rarely thinks of Jon. The discrepancy is heartbreaking, but the novel resists readings that might condemn Vibeke as simply being a bad mother. The narrator never passes moral judgment on any character in the novel, and Vibeke is shown to be overworked and exhausted, prone to forgetfulness, at the start of the story. Understandable as it might be, Vibeke’s neglect does cause the plot to become increasingly sinister, and Love ends on a note of despair.
Recently shortlisted for the inaugural National Book Award in Translated Literature, Love first appeared to readers over two decades ago. Norwegian author Hanne Ørstavik released the novel in her home country in 1997, but Archipelago Books published Martin Aitken’s translation earlier this year for the English-speaking market. The new iteration of the Translated Literature Award requires only that the translation has been published in the year of the award submission.
The novel, in spite of its age, does not feel dated. The fuzziness of the wintry setting frees the plot from feeling tied down to a particular time or place. So, too, does the author’s narrow focus on the bond between mother and son lend the story an ageless quality. At times I wanted more specificity, but for the most part Ørstavik’s choice to paint her work with a broad brush makes Love dreamy and entrancing.
As much as I enjoyed the novel, I can’t see it winning the National Book Award for that same set of reasons. The story doesn’t feel all that connected to 2018 or even the 2010s as a decade, and there are more topical books on the shortlist that are just as well written.
Still, Love is exceptionally crafted and well worth checking out. Ørstavik’s prose is understated but affecting, especially as the author nears the ominous end of her plot, and her characterization of Vibeke and Jon is subtle and nuanced. Highly looking forward to one day reading the author’s other novel in translation, The Blue Room.