Novel set mainly in Norway (a family in crisis)

13th April 2019

A Modern Family by Helga Flatland, novel set mainly in Norway.

Translated by Rosie Hedger

Novel set mainly in Norway

This is very much a contemporary story of family built around three generations. The opening is set in Rome and then in the Italian countryside where the family members are preparing to celebrate Sverre’s 70th birthday. He is the patriarch of the family. His wife Torill and the matriarch is preparing the festive food, spurning any help. Their three children are present – Liv with Olav, Ellen with Simen and Håkon who has not brought a partner.

The storyline is very much a study of acquired positions and roles that each individual takes (and is unconsciously given) within a family unit –  the critical one, someone who is different, adaptive, controlling or acquiescent. Each family member has a critical position in maintaining the family status quo. The two partners (the newbies in the family as it were) have to find their own role in the enmeshed and practised dynamics. Every family in the world is a unique construct and it is fascinating to be an onlooker as this family breaks, changes, adapts and has to reform.

The bombshell in Italy is dropped that Sverre and Torill – the aged parents – are making a life changing decision. They have had time to decide and manage how they wish to present their fait accompli to the wider family members, and a shock to everyone else present.

The ripple effect of their announcement, which seeps through the souls of their children and grandchildren follows the well-trodden path of a typical shock-response – each individual starts to evaluate what being in a couple relationship means. Olav and Liv have two children and Liv is the oldest sibling and hers is the role to keep everything together; their eldest child has a very specific reaction to the news. Ellen and Simen (Ellen is the middle child) are struggling with fertility problems which continue to exert phenomenal pressure on the couple relationship as they come to terms with the parents’ news. And baby of the family is Håkon, who was born with a hole in his heart and has therefore always had a ‘special’ place in the family. He is quite happily, it seems, doing his own thing when it comes to societal norms and couple relationships.

The author unpicks the fall out from the news with precision and intelligence. She examines how the family members grapple with how they are expected to behave and what this fracturing means, reflecting on what family actually means. The author has quite an intense and dense writing style which invites the reader to thoroughly engage with the words and savour the sentence construction. Words have clearly been carefully put together (credit also to the translator for making the style extremely readable in English). As a reader one can almost feel like a voyeur… looking in on this family grappling to understand the fall out and finding ways to look into the future.

The author has been dubbed the Norwegian Anne Tyler and in this portrayal of family there is hint of Ingmar Bergman. An arresting and interesting read.

Setting isn’t particularly strong in terms of TripFiction.

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