|Will and Testament / Vigdis Hjorth
translated from the Norwegian by Charlotte Barslund
Ashland, OR: Blackstone Audio, 2019, c2016
After enjoying Long Live the Post Horn! by this author, I decided to listen to this one via my library. It's quite different from that first read, though. While the style is similar and the essential loneliness of the main character is repeated, this book is much more raw and also inconclusive. There is no happy ending here.
Bergljot is the second daughter in a family of four. She is a theatre critic and writer, and is herself the mother of children and grandchildren. But she is also caught up in her relationship to her siblings and her parents; as the story begins, she has been estranged from most of her family (particularly her parents) for 23 years. But the two youngest daughters have just been given an early inheritance of two cabins on an island, cutting Bergljot and her older brother out. He is enraged, and this disagreement brings her back into communication with her siblings.
But as the story progresses, we learn why it is that Bergljot has severed ties with her family. When she was a child, she was sexually abused by her father, and only remembered it in her 30s. At that point she spoke to her mother and sisters about it, but in the end they don't believe her, demanding proof for something, that as she notes, can not be proved.
It's this behaviour, the disbelief and expectation that even if it was true she should get over it, that wounds her so much. She's not being seen in her entirety, not welcome in the family fold unless she plays along with the way all the others want things to work -- smoothly, untroubled. And that's not going to happen.
The story unfolds in circular patterns. Bergljot goes over and over her experience, repeating it to herself, parsing the reactions of her siblings, trying to see moments in her childhood that will 'prove' it, even to herself. Hjorth's repetitive style reflects the questioning, the agony, that Bergljot puts herself through. Even her boyfriend is getting tired of her ruminating. It's only her artist friend Clara who supports her fully, and is always encouraging her to speak up and not give in to any pressure. Her children, now adults, do what they can, including choosing not to see their grandparents either.
But then her father dies suddenly, and all the things that she'd hoped might come out then do not. Her family still won't hear of it, and Bergljot realizes that just like she was told in a support group years before, those who confront their family usually lose their families.
This was a hard book to experience. The events of the story, of course, but also being inside Bergljot's emotional maelstrom for so long. This really highlights the interior experience of a child of abuse, even into her own late middle age. It ends with a faint sense that things might get better for the next generations, even if Bergljot has had to realize that her mother and sisters won't give her the support and closure she needs. It's tough to read but really powerful, and will resonate with some readers, although it's not one to read if you are currently experiencing emotional trauma. Apparently this book caused quite a lot of controversy in Norway when it was first published, despite the author saying that it wasn't autobiographical. But this subject matter really does cause discomfort and fear for many, and that's partly what she was engaging with in this novel.