Fiction — Kindle edition. Translated from the Norwegian by Deborah Dawkin. Peirene Press, 2014. Originally published 1999. 174 pgs. Library copy.
The introduction to Ørstavik’s novella by the publisher, Meike Ziervogel of Peirene Press, is certainly an eyebrow-raising one. In it, Ziervogel recommends people who have read Fifty Shades of Grey read Ørstavik because the book:
“…holds up a mirror to a part of the female psyche that yearns for submission. The story shows how erotic fantasies are formed by the relationship with our parents. It then delves further to analyse the struggle of women to separate from their mothers – a struggle that is rarely addressed in either literature or society.”
If the suggestion that the female psyche yearns for submission wasn’t enough to catch my attention, certainly the second sentence would have. The book does exactly what Ziervogel promises; the narrator, Johanne, constructs elaborate fantasies about sexual interactions based on submission and on what she has seen her mother participate in.
Like Fifty Shades of Grey, Johanne’s fantasies and, later, sexual interactions with a boy named Ivar that she begins to see over her friend’s objections are incredibly complicated. Her construct of what a relationship should be swings from sweet and plucked from a rom-com to abusive with questionable understandings of consent. As a result, the book can be uncomfortable to read.
In some unknown apartment he would take my face in his hands and gaze at me, look into my eyes and say that he loved me, that we belonged together, that he’d waited so long, that he’d longed for a girl, and that girl was me, and that he would look after me. And we’d lock the doors and talk all night, and he’d hold my face in his hands. I could see it all. It would be as though the rest of my body would disappear, he would love me like this, love my eyes, my face, me. Nobody would know where I was, he would hit me, slap me across the cheek, my arms, blue marks would appear instantly, and he’d call me a pussy-licker because I was with another girl when he met me, he’d make me cry and cower in a corner, before comforting me and using my body.
Adding to the difficulty is the structure of the novella, itself. Johanne has awoken to find herself locked in her bedroom by her mother, and the reader is left to figure out why through the portrait Johanne creates of her relationship with her mother via recounted events of the past, the present, and in Johanne’s fantasies.
As much as Ørstavik provided to ruminate on — particularly on the relationship between mother and daughter and how daughters do (not) repeat the mistakes of their mothers — I found this a difficult story to drop back into. It is not always clear if an event is true or not, or where the event fits in Johanne’s timeline.
I’d like to think the timeline would have been clear if I had read Ørstavik’s novella in one sitting (as Peirene recommends with all their works). But I found the content to be a huge push outside my comfort zone and one I, therefore, needed to digest slowly over time. And when I did take those breaks to contemplate the story, I found I had to keep reminding myself to return back to it.