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A luminous example of fictionalised autobiography

In 2014, when Unquiet by Linn Ullmann was still in the process of being written, the Norwegian writer and journalist was asked by Vogue what she was currently working on. ‘I am writing a memoir’, she replied, ‘or at least I thought it was a memoir. But since my memory is both very vivid and not entirely reliable, it could just as well be a novel.’ At the time, Ullmann was promoting her book Det dyrebare (The Cold Song) in America. The ‘memoir’ she described became the 2015 sensation De urolige, which was recently published in English as Unquiet in a translation by Thilo Reinhard.

Ullmann has always made an effort not to have her authorship put into context with the legendary careers of her parents, the Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman and Norwegian actress Liv Ullmann. However, in Unquiet she is delving into this very material, and the result is a ruthlessly scathing yet loving portrayal of a child desperate to grow up, and parents who would like to remain children.

Unquiet began as a shared project between Ullmann and her aging father; they were supposed to write a book about what it meant to grow old. Soon, however, reality, dream and memory had all begun to merge and become elusive to the famous director, and he was too ill to continue their work. For many years after his death in 2007, Ullmann did not touch the crackling recordings of their wandering conversations.

In the finished book, snippets from these intersperse long sequences detailing a little girl’s summers with her father on the Baltic Sea island of Fårö, as well as memories of her intense longing for her mother, who was swept up by her wildly successful career in the 1970s. There are no names in the novel, and Ullmann therefore elegantly avoids the unnecessary clutter that comes with namedropping her parents. Instead, the book is about a family that was never a family: ‘I was her child and his child, but never their child. (…) She and he and I. That constellation did not exist.’

The author switches seamlessly between the first and third person, which makes her account of childhood appear simultaneously intimate and distant. She allows her sentences to go on and on, listing and repeating objects, people and places, just like the little girl of the story takes to writing lists: ‘My father has four houses, two cars, five wives, one swimming pool, nine children, and one cinema.’

Ullmann’s book is part of a recent flourish of genre-defying literature that can best be described as highly readable amalgamations of fiction, life writing and memoir. On the very first page of her novel, Ullmann notes: ‘If there were such a thing as a telescope that could be trained on the past, I could have said: Look, that’s us, let’s find out what really happened.’ By acknowledging that there is no such thing as an objective recollection of the past, Ullmann creates a space in which her project can breathe and pulsate.

Her tone is playful yet ruthlessly straightforward in its depictions of childhood, adolescence and old age. Reinhard has done his best to preserve this in translation; his wise inclusion of the Norwegian ‘Mamma’ and ‘Pappa’ immediately brings us closer to the fragmented Scandinavian family. Unquiet is extraordinarily well written in its luminous simplicity, and would be of interest to all those who feel their childhood to be somewhat fragmented; that is, to many of us.

Unquiet by Linn Ullmann is published by WW Norton & Co, 288 pages.

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