Fiction – paperback; Picador; 307 pages; 2009. Translated from the Norwegian by Sarah Death.
Proving that there’s more to Scandinavian literature than crime novels, Linn Ullmann’s A Blessed Child is an absorbing family drama about three half-sisters — Erika, Laura and Molly — who spend their summers together on the Swedish island of Hammarsö.
Here, under the watchful eye of their bad-tempered and seemingly indifferent father, Isak, and his second wife, Rosa (Laura’s mother), they enjoy a carefree existence. But during the summer of 1979 a terrible event occurs that changes the girls’ lives forever — and puts paid to their family vacations on the island.
A literary suspense novel
The problem with writing a review of this novel is that it’s hard to say anything more without giving away crucial plot spoilers. The book works as a kind of literary suspense novel because the reader knows from the outset that something bad happens during one of these vacations, but you’re not sure what it is (my initial guess was way off the mark), and so to say anything more would destroy that magic.
The novel is divided into five parts. In the first we meet Erika, the eldest half-sister, who is now middle-aged and determined to visit her 84-year-old father for possibly the last time.
It is 2005 and Isak, a retired gynecologist who made his name as a pioneer of ultrasound, lives alone in the old summer house on Hammarsö, where he moved permanently after Rosa’s death in the early 1990s. After the funeral he made several “noises” about killing himself — “the pills had been procured, the deed carefully planned” — but he never did so.
Recollections of the past
Now as Erika makes the long trek by car, through snow, she recalls her summers with her father — the first was in 1972 — and her rather complicated relationship with him. And she also thinks about her own life, separated from her second husband, who left her, and how much she hates her first husband, a miser who cringed if he ever had to open his wallet.
This forms the pattern of the novel, as each sister takes it in turns to make the journey to Hammarsö — Laura and Molly end up travelling together — recounting the past, focussing especially on their childhood summers, and re-examining their relationship with Isak.
These narrative threads combine to form a rich tapestry of lives and emotions and bonds between siblings, and, in particular, the relationship between fathers and daughters. But because Ullmann expertly contrasts the past with the present, the reader can see how each sister has grown and changed and been shaped by her experiences. You can appreciate the shifting alliances and the nursed hurts and the ways in which personalities have altered as a result of the terrible incident at the heart of this novel. And you can see, too, how each woman has developed traits similar to her father.
Ullmann, who is the daughter of actress, author and director Liv Ullmann and director and screenwriter Ingmar Bergman, writes beautifully — and the expert translation by Sarah Death means you would never know the book was originally written in Norwegian. It feels natural and seamless, almost as if it was English from the very start.
As with most Scandinavian novels, the narrative is deeply tied to the landscape, nature and the seasons. The beauty of Hammarsö in summer is a major focus — the woods, the sea, the long grass by the dunes — and the ways in which people’s lives are put at the mercy of the elements — wind, storms and the raging ocean.
But Ullmann’s greatest strength is her ability to write candidly and truthfully about adolescence. There are aspects of Erika’s story which are deeply affecting but later turn to alarm as she navigates her sexuality for the first time and tries to hide her affection for a local boy, who is regularly bullied, from the bitchy teenage crowd she has fallen in with.
A Blessed Child, Ullmann’s fourth novel (a fifth novel, The Cold Song, was published last year), was shortlisted for the Brage Prize in 2005, was longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2009.