Brynhild is seventeen and in love. She’s been told many times that she needs to know her place, and she does. By day, her place is in the kitchen as a housemaid, but by night it’s in the feverish embrace of the master’s eldest son. Quiet and pious, she is awaiting God’s blessing of their love. God, of course, has other plans, and in My Men by Victoria Kielland, we watch as Brynhild morphs into Belle Gunness, the murderous owner of a dark ‘carnivorous heart’. Based on the true story of America’s first known female serial killer, it’s an intense and mesmerising affair.
Using the known facts of the case as a framework, Kielland shows us the how, while her imagination weaves the why. Belle Gunness, originally known as Brynhild, was a Norwegian who moved to America as a young woman in the 1880’s. Making her home in a farming community, she spent the following decades despatching would-be-suitors and the odd child, and cashing in Life Insurance claims. It’s thought that her victim tally may have exceeded forty.
Kielland begins in Norway, with Brynhild, ‘seventeen with her heart in her throat,’ as she tells her beloved that she’s pregnant. Then his eyes swimming in booze as he kicks her in the stomach and leaves her miscarrying on the floor. In the following weeks, the devastated Brynhild waits for God, whose response is silence.
‘…but now it was like every day, someone was skating over her heart with sharp blades.’
An invitation to move to America leads to Brynhild reinventing herself, changing her name to Bella and travelling alone across the Atlantic Ocean. Everything is bigger there she’s told, so much opportunity, lots of ex-pat Norwegians and lots of husbands. As it happens, the beauty and romance of Lake Michigan will repel Bella, making her ‘want to throw up’. But the lure of a Norwegian husband will prove to be a different prospect altogether.
This is an astonishing reimagining of a lurid criminal history. For the most part, Kielland avoids grotesque detail, instead giving us the curiously beautiful and lyrical unravelling of a sickly soul. ‘Who are you really?’ is a question looping repeatedly in Bella’s brain, and one that this inspired novel strives to answer.
Her youthful hopes soured, Bella finds that life in Michigan continues its theme of domestic drudgery and searching for God. ‘The Lord our God is a consuming fire,’ she tells us more than once. Something ‘pale and sickly’ crouches inside her, nursing ominous premonitions. And soon the men and babies will start arriving.
Anyone irresistibly drawn (as I was), to researching the facts of the original case will be amazed at how Bella (at this point, known as just Belle) Gunness found it absurdly easy to ensnare ex-pat men via Lonely Hearts newspaper ads. Kielland touches on this with poignancy.
‘…the Scandinavians were a people full of longing, so far from home, they came looking for her with such trembling and longing’.
Beautifully translated from the Norwegian by Damion Searls, this unique, award-winning novel is one of our stand-out reads of the year.
My Men by Victoria Kielland is translated by Damion Searls and published by Pushkin Press, 224 pages.