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Unrequited love in a cold climate

It is always strange when a foreign book published more than 20 years ago is suddenly picked up by an English-language publisher and goes on to receive rave reviews. This recently happened with the book Love by Hanne Ørstavik, an author who, with numerous novels, essays and short stories under her belt, has long been one of Norway’s most respected writers. Her 1997 breakthrough novel Kjærlighet was translated as Love by Martin Aitken last year and published in America, where it was shortlisted for the National Book Award. Now, Ørstavik’s strongest work has finally been published in the UK by And Other Stories.

In Love, we follow Vibeke and her son Jon through a cold afternoon in the north of Norway. Jon loves his mother and craves her attention the way all children do. He will turn nine the day after, and fantasises about the surprises Vibeke might have planned for him. Vibeke, on the other hand, craves the attention of the outside world; she fantasises about a comfortable, elegant life, and about a dark-eyed engineer in the building department at work.

The perspective alternates between mother and son. Ørstavik’s direct, descriptive style reveals Vibeke’s complete disinterest in Jon: ‘Can’t you just go’ she thinks as she sits opposite him at the dinner table, and when she later strokes his hair, she is in fact focusing on her own hand and her flaking nail polish. When Jon then ventures out into the cold to give his mother time to prepare his birthday cake (Ørstavik makes it clear that Vibeke has not given his birthday a single thought), she doesn’t even notice he’s gone.

Ørstavik then makes the two separate narratives intertwine effortlessly. Vibeke goes out to return books at the local library, and ends up flirting with a strange man onto whom she projects all her loneliness and pent-up longing. Their drawn-out encounter takes up most of the novel, and yet remains empty and unfulfilled. Meanwhile, Jon moves around in the cold, sparsely populated landscape, blindly trusting everyone he meets. His thoughts wander from toy trains to torture images, but always return to his mother.

Jon’s longing for Vibeke is excruciating, but so is Vibeke’s pathetic longing for a different life, and her wish for the man she just met to be her soulmate. She thinks ‘how agreeable he is to be with. Easy-going and unconventional at the same time (…) She feels chosen, privileged to be here in this little trailer with such an unusual man.’ Meanwhile, Jon continues to wander between strange households, and then out in the cold again, waiting for his mother to prepare his birthday.

Shining street lights illuminate the snow-filled, empty roads while Ørstavik’s short, stabbing sentences creates a mounting tension that in the end becomes oppressive. Both Vibeke and Jon drift aimlessly, driven by their hunger for love and approval, and it is physically painful to witness their failure in finding just this.

Martin Aitken succeeds in rendering the quiet force of Ørstavik’s simple language in his English translation. With Love, Ørstavik effectively creates a universe in which there seems to be no warmth or daylight, only homeless longing and unrequited love, proving even to the English reader that she is a truly fearless writer.

Love by Hanne Ørstavik is translated by Martin Aitken and published by And Other Stories, 130 pages.

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