I wondered for a short while whether or not a book review was an appropriate thing to write on a blog that is meant to be about languages. But then I remembered that I can write about what ever I want, so…
As a die-hard fan of Nordic noir/ Scandi-drama of all types, when I read a review of the Blue Room in the Guardian, I pretty much ordered the book instantly. The review promised ‘as sly a bit of unreliable narration as I’ve read in a long while’, ‘a strong flavour of plausibility’ and ‘constant interruption by violent erotic images’. All good things in my book. Although in actual fact the book is even odder than this makes it sound.
The simple premise of the story is a girl called Johanne who lives in a stifling flat in Oslo with her oppressive, devoutly Christian mother. Johanne gets a new boyfriend. Her mother locks her in her room for a day to prevent her taking a trip to America with said boyfriend. And yes, that is pretty much the story. Much more of this is psychological than ‘realistic’. On the surface, you might wonder why Johanne doesn’t simply climb out of her window or force her door open and find her way to the airport, rather than peeing in a wastepaper basket, having sexual fantasies about a 12 year old Asian girl chained to a bed and musing on the brief and rather perfunctory story of her relationship with her boyfriend Ivan. But, as I said, this whole novel is almost entirely set within Johanne’s mind. It is almost entirely psychological. And what unravels is not an explanation of why Johanne is stuck in a room, and how she gets out, but a tortuous explanation of why on some level she doesn’t even want to get out of the room.
Johanne is training to be a psychologist – her studies are paramount to her, and she is borderline obsessed with her vision of her future, with her living in ‘The Barns’ (a house she plans to own with her aforementioned oppressive mother), working in her own little practice and being regularly raped by an overweight and aged mentor. Little tiny details drive her crazy, and she has an OCD inability to break her routine. Anything that could prevent her from sleeping, eating, cycling to university at the perfect time and studying, studying, studying, is an evil influence in her life which could destroy her perfect future. Even drinking a coffee in the university canteen is overanalysed in her mind. What if the expense adds up and stops her from achieving her dream of living in the Barns? What if the time she spends with Ivan (her boyfriend) stops her from studying and she can’t become a psychologist? What if she stays out too late and upsets her incredibly oversensitve and overbearing mother? The story, such as there is one, is Johanne’s mental state, her obsessively symbiotic relationship with her mother, her inability to break free and grow up, and her own misgivings about getting outside of her comfort zone.
Her supposedly central relationship with Ivan is, in reality, barely central at all. For half the book, the relationship exists mostly in her mind. She has a coffee with him, he offers her a towel… Almost nothing seems to really exist in the real world. Even as she becomes more and more fixated on Ivan and more and more ‘in love’, she is still more fixated on her own rules and visions, and can never really let go to the extent that she needs to develop a real relationship. From almost nothing, she jumps straight into a full-on sexual relationship that is at odds with her mother’s obssessive puritanism (albeit in theory, absolutely not in practice) and her own restrictive ideals. ‘What is love?’ her mother asks Ivan at dinner. He doesn’t seem to have an answer. ‘Love is God and God is love’, Johanne’s friend Karin had answered previously – an extreme ideal which Johanne is always measured up against. She too is devoutly religious. Almost everything comes back to how she can define her relationship with God. Is Ivan compatible with that? Sometimes she thinks so, other times she is sucked in by her mother’s extreme ideas that all men are out to rape and stab her. ‘What if he had a knife hidden in his jacket?’
Almost no part of the dynamic between mother and daughter, and Johanne’s mental process appears even vaguely logical or sane to the reader. The mother aggressively denounces sexuality, whilst screwing random men behind the curtain of her bedroom and dressing increasingly suggestively. She also overreacts to almost everything. Johanne reacts to her mother’s extreme attitude by treading on eggshells ever more. She should have known that her mother wouldn’t like pasta for dinner. She should have understood that her mother would hate a French movie. She shouldn’t have invited Ivan to dinner. Surely he should have known not to bring wine. Was he stupid? Would he get drunk on a weeknight? This extreme puritanism contrasts violently with Johanne’s increasingly x-rated fantasies. The Asian girl chained to the bed being abused by successions of men and women; the abusive older mentor. Her own ideas about sex with Ivan rapidly descend into him shouting abuse at her, choking her or otherwise abusing her. The line between reality and imagination becomes more and more blurred. What is her fantasy and what is real? The Guardian review suggest that her brother who is supposedly studying in the USA is really dead. I didn’t catch any convincing evidence for that, although the details are sketchy, and there is clearly something odd underlying the home dynamic. No father is mentioned and the brother is at most a phantom. What’s left is a stiflingly and unhealthily close relationship between mother and daughter. Culminating in Johanne locked in her room for trying to break free. How much of the relationship with Ivan is even real, and how much is her imagination? That’s the unreliable narration for you. I always love a good bit of unreliable narration, although it frustrates me in equal measure. You’re not going to get any real answers.
The writing is in turns frustrating and intriguing. Ørstavik writes in short choppy sentences, or at least her translator does. If you’re not frustrated by the delberately stilted writing, you’ll be frustrated by Johanne herself and her inability to face up to anything, hiding behind daydreams, fantasies, God and hymns sung quietly to herself. I didn’t altogether enjoy the read, but I was compelled to keep reading, and it’s stuck with me for a little while after reading it. I can see a little of myself in Johanne’s rigid ideals and inability to let go. Her utter failure to understand herself and those around her and her dogged determination not to break out of her comfort zone makes for uncomforable reading. Do not read this book for fun, or expecting a nice Scandi drama read, but the layers of psychological mess are intriguing and will make you think.