Book Reviews

‘The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.’ Alan Bennett

“Many a book is like a key to unknown chambers within the castle of one’s own self.” ― Franz Kafka

Thursday, 12 June 2014

The Blue Room - Hanne Ørstavik

'It will be fine, I think to myself, I will get out of here in time. And yet, it's as if I already know it's over. I must let it go, let go of the hope and the dreams, let them float away like twigs in a stream.'

The Blue Room is the second of three titles in Peirene's current series of releases which all come under the theme 'Coming-of-Age'. Translated from the Norwegian by Deborah Dawkin, the story is narrated by Johanne, a young woman who has been locked in her room by her mother, Unni, who she lives with in Oslo. Johanne had met a man, Ivar, in the canteen at college and had planned to travel to America with him that day. She ponders whether to call for help, whether she could escape through the window, and it's not just a physical battle but a mental one too; does she have the necessary courage to break away from her mother in this way? She shares her thoughts about this, and also recalls dreams and recent events, meeting Ivar at collage, studying psychology, attending church, outings with her mother, visiting her Granny.

Mingled with these recollections are erotic fantasies. Johanne explores her relationship with her mother, she depends on her, is supported by her and appreciates and loves her. Yet she wants to make her own decisions, to explore her attraction to Ivar, to explore her sexuality. But she comes back to the thought that she also relies heavily on the security she has at home with her mother, and the promises regarding The Barns, a proposed future setting for her to live and work, and so she checks herself; 'I had to try not to let him come too close. I mustn't forget my plans.'  Her mother keeps a close eye on her, warns her 'it was dangerous to get involved with strange men.' Johanne is torn, grappling with the two different paths, struggling to seperate herself from her mother, to fully immerse herself in life with Ivar, wishing she could just not make the choice; 'I wished I could split my body in two, give one part to Mum and the other to Ivar.'  But there are moments of maturity and insight, with her telling herself 'you seem to think you can put the responsiblity for your life into other people's hands.' Love yourself.' 

It's a short, thoughtful read, much of it based on Johanne's internal musings and debates, and as such she moves from one topic or event to another quickly and with little or no warning, so the reader needs to pay attention to the narrative. The author captures the way our thoughts flit and jump like this very convincingly. I enjoyed the insights into psychology as Johanne thought about her life and her studies. Religion has an important role in her life too, it seems, and we observe her asking for forgiveness about her thoughts several times. It comes across that she has had a fairly innocent existence thus far, her path planned out, and she is trying now to reconcile this with the desires she now feels and the experiences she has with Ivar, potentially taking her away from this path and away from her mother and also her friend Karin.

Johanne observes of herself and her mother's relationship that 'we belong together like two clasped hands.' Though we can't be sure because we only have Johanne's point of view about everything, her judgement and stance, which made me wonder how much to believe, and I felt there was more to a lot of things than first meets the eye.

I read The Blue Room in only a couple of sittings; as with other books from this publisher, it's short at fewer than 200 pages. I was curious as to what Johanne would do, would she be moved to action, would she still be in the room at the end of the story. This is another intriguing, thought-provoking slice of translated European fiction from Peirene. 

Thanks to the publisher for kindly sending me a copy of this novel for an honest review.

Published by Peirene Press
Translated from the Norwegian by Deborah Dawkin

About the author

Hanne Ørstavik, born in 1969, is one of the most admired authors in contemporary Norwegian literature. She has received a number of literary prizes, including the Dobloug Prize for her entire literary output, and the Brage Prize, Norway's most prestigious literary award. Her novels have been translated into 18 languages but never before into English. 


  1. Superb commentary Lindsey.

    This one sounds so good. Stories that concern themselves mostly with what goes in in a character's mind seem to hold the most interest for me. Tales that delve into the human character and do so with philosophical overtones seem to me to be irresistible.

    I can imagine juts how much anticipation that this one have built up as to whether she would leave the room or not.

    1. Thanks for the kind comment Brian. I'm still thinking about this narrator and about how reliable she was, or wasn't, as the case may be.

  2. A great review, Lindsay. You make an excellent point about us only hearing Johanne's side of the story, her thoughts and perspective on events (and her relationship with the mother).

    1. Thanks very much for your kind comment Jacqui. Definitely an interesting layered read.


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