Friday, 16 May 2014

Book Review: Before You Sleep by Linn Ullmann today’s review I picked a piece of contemporary Scandinavian literature for a change. And no, it’s not a crime story or a romance although it sometimes seems to me as if hardly any other writings from the European north made its way into Austrian bookshops these days. Instead my choice is an entirely fictitious narrative about the influence that our families and personal history have on who we are and how we deal with life. It’s the presence of a child who doesn’t yet know his parents’ and grand-parents’ past that starts the stream of memories on which Linn Ullmann built her first novel Before You Sleep to explore the vicissitudes of life and love. 

Linn Ullmann, real name Karin Beate Ullmann, was born in Oslo, Norway, in August 1966. After graduating in English Literature from New York University the daughter of actress Liv Ullmann and film director Ingmar Bergmann worked as a literary critic in Norway. In 1998 she brought out her debut novel titled Before You Sleep (Før du sovner) which immediately earned her much critical acclaim. In the new millennium followed her novels Stella Descending (Når jeg er hos deg: 2001), Grace (Nåde: 2002), and A Blessed Child (Et Velsignet Barn: 2005). The authors latest published novel is The Cold Song (Det dyrebare: 2011). Linn Ullmann lives in Oslo, Norway, with her family. 

The frame plot of Before You Sleep is set in Oslo, Norway, in 1998. The main narrator is Karin Blom who is taking care of her seven-year-old nephew Sander while his parents are on a second honeymoon in Italy to save their marriage. In the opening scene the two lie in bed waiting for the phone call to tell them that they have arrived safe and sound at their hotel. Karin has allowed the boy to stay up to say good night to his parents, but it’s already after midnight and they should have heard from them hours ago. To kill time Karin tells Sander a fairy tale about the north wind and the sun which was among the things buried in a time capsule during the World Fair in New York in 1939. It’s a piece of family history and starts a train of memories which seemingly at random connects the past seven decades with the present. The Blom family has seen ups and downs just like any other family and they struggle to make their dreams of happiness and love come true, but for everybody it means something different. Each generation has adopted its own strategies to deal with the moments of joy and grief that make up life. While Karin’s grandfather, Rikard Blom, followed his dream of America and was perfectly happy in the 1930s selling costumes including dreams in his New Yorker shop called Cinderella Scissors, his wife June relied on being disciplined and severe to herself like a soldier who only advances and never looks back. Karin’s mother Anni trusts in her looks, above all in her irresistible smile, but it isn’t enough to hold her husband who leaves her and their two daughters as soon as he feels that love is over. When she grows older, the awareness of her fading beauty inevitably plunges her into confusion and makes her take a stupid decision. Karin’s sister Julie is soft and defenceless against the hardships of life. She gets married to feel safe in the refuge of love and family. And Karin… she got into the habit of lying to protect herself from pain, but her armour also prevents her from finding the human warmth and happiness she always longed for.

The greatest part of Before You Sleep is the first-person narrative of Karin. It’s a meditative story not just about the narrator herself, but about her entire family that through example and education shaped her character. Karin’s world is populated by unique types with clear outlines. Certainly, their distinguishing traits are exaggerated, sometimes even to the point of the absurd and funny, and yet, they all feel so realistic that it wouldn’t be surprising at all to run into them around the next corner. Even the stray cat making an appearance in the last part of the book doesn’t make an exception there. The novel’s language and style are unpretentious and easy to follow despite the many flashbacks on family history and Karin’s own past which constantly interact with the present. The prose is rich in often powerful pictures. Also several episodes are salted with surreal symbols that, giving them a thought or two, don’t seem that far-fetched after all.

All in all, I enjoyed Before You Sleep by Linn Ullmann very much. It was an amusing read which made me think too and therefore I’m more than willing to recommend it for reading.

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