October 2011

Jaya Chatterjee


Child Wonder by Roy Jacobsen

In recent years, Graywolf Press has built a list whose modest size belies its august stature. It features authors ranging from former National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Dana Gioia, to Pulitzer Prize nominee Elizabeth Alexander, who read her "Praise Song for the Day" at President Obama's inauguration, to ingenious British essayist and critic Geoff Dyer, to novelists like Per Petterson, Deirdre Madden, and Binyavanga Wainaina. Daedal narrative craft and tempered prose shape their works, a signature that extends to one of their new novels, Roy Jacobsen's Child Wonder.

Finn, its narrator, revels in the quietude of urban Oslo in the early 1960s. The absence of his father, who left his mother for another woman, fathered a second child with her, then perished in a crane accident provides a haunting backdrop for the story, a muted but ever present crucible of pain for Finn and Mother, who bury Father's photographs in a locked drawer of their tiny apartment. But the reticence, resilience, and indomitable spirit both in subject and in storytelling also shape an inviolable bond between mother and child.

Spare, beautifully restrained prose governs the early chapters of the novel, calling to mind literature's most graceful architects of youth, from Colette's Minet-Chéri, in La Maison de Claudine, drawn to her mother's centrifugal warmth and radiant sincerity, to Patti Smith in Just Kids, tied to Robert Mapplethorpe through both art and affect. Finn is a wise, quietly percipient child whose attunement to the senses far surpasses his years, infusing his narrative voice with sagacity and incandescence. Silence is a space of oneiric configuration, of finding what Gaston Bachelard once lyrically termed the "antecedence of being," for as Finn tells us later in the novel, "it is always silence that puts the world in another light than its own." Where the metaphorical meanings of words evade him, like a Dickensian child, an Oliver Twist nodding at a wooden tabletop when told to greet the "board," or proprietors of his house of foundlings, or a Pip drolly commenting on the bemusing actions of his adult guardians, Finn retreats to an evocative sensorium to limn his story: "We collected words, Mother and I did, and laughed at them and liked them or thought them silly or redundant, words that were so real you could touch them, like concrete, exhaust, piassava broom, petrol, leather, shoe leather... I fell into a reverie..." Or this: "I go to my room to do my homework, with the doors open so that we can hear each other: Mother pottering about in the sitting room and the kitchen, the evening's sonatas and the shipping forecast on the radio, which means bedtime is approaching." 

The early chapters of the novel feature similarly melismatic descriptions, through which Finn's rich haptic sense and knowledge of the intent if not the precise meaning of language inform his prose. The "ethereal tranquility" is at times colored by the macabre underpinnings of Mother's violent outbursts, or by Finn's sense of her retreat into a quietly inaccessible mental space, yet his narrative voice and vision are persistently lucid.

What begins as enigmatic, adumbrated disquiet, however, begins to fracture palpably when Finn and his mother acquire two new houseguests: Kristian, a thirty-something tenant whose initial hauteur peeves Mother, but whose stalwart presence, encyclopedic knowledge, and curio collection intrigue Finn, and Linda, Finn's aphasic half-sister, "quietly wrapped up in her own eternity."

Perhaps the narrative and tonal fault lines are intended stylistic conceits, analogues for the frustration, confusion, absence, and loss Finn himself feels as he tries to decipher the shared experiences of Mother and Linda. What mutual condition reduces them to silence and tears, to "vice-like grips" on one another's hands? Why does Mother disappear from their family's camping trip to a hospital that performs ablation procedures and electroshock therapy on patients whose memories forever inflect their lives? Why are Mother's interactions with her family so halting and enervating? The reader, like Finn, must suture her impressions of this "shrinking violet... frightened of the dark," holding understanding in abeyance. Yet the imagism of Jacobsen's prose, artful though it seems, devolves into a beleaguered story, leaving the reader far removed from any logically conceived conclusion. By the time Finn makes the bitter, almost aberrant confession that his twenty-year-old nanny would make a better mother than his own, "not a fickle dove in a storm whose composure is shaken one ordinary Thursday," the mannered sensitivity and adoration he once showed Mother is shattered, but worse, his trenchant faculty of reason and cognizance of the subtleties of emotional change have gone with it.

At first, I pinned the disjunctions on the avowed challenge of translation from Norwegian, which occasions infelicitous prose at moments, inspiring interjectory refrains of "by the way," and truncated sentences that renew themselves with "and." A second reading, however, yielded a more sustained sense of narrative fissure, moments where fiction is grafted onto fictional fact, making the fates of some characters predictable, others implausible or abrogated. It is a regrettable fault in a novel otherwise so warmly conceived, and with such an amiable, well-drawn narrator. Privileging his voice over other more muted ones may well have made a tessellated novel of the fragments of beauty herein.

Child Wonder: A Novel by Roy Jacobsen
Graywolf Press
ISBN: 978-1555975951
256 pages