May 2014

Adrian Van Young


The Cold Song by Linn Ullmann, translated by Barbara J. Haveland

There's a striking passage toward the middle of Linn Ullmann's new novel The Cold Song in which Siri, the good wife, and Jon, the bad husband, who sleep in separate bedrooms in their drafty Oslo house, send a series of wrenching midnight texts to recapture the closeness they no longer share. "It was a very long time since Jon had touched his wife," Ullman writes, "and he sent her a picture of a corner of his pillowcase. The following evening she sent him a picture of a detail from [one of their daughter's drawings]... and he sent her a picture of the knot at the end of the cord for adjusting the blinds in the attic. Siri sent him a picture of [their daughter's] flaxen curls on their Peter Rabbit pillow, and then he sent her a photograph of the two of them when they were young and in love... And Jon took a picture of his own face and sent her the picture and under it he wrote: Can I come and lie next to you?"

Perhaps needless to say, Siri never responds; she remains, like her husband, completely alone. And the couple's condition is fitting indeed, given the novel's predominant theme: not only aloneness but also family aloneness, the most painful kind for a person to suffer. In the tradition of William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, Thomas Savage's Power of the Dog or Marilyne Robinson's Housekeeping, Norwegian novelist Ullmann's fifth book concerns itself with the terrifying voids that exist between people only superficially intimate -- parents and children and husbands and wives -- and asks us the question: can such voids be bridged? Can people, with faith as their guides, grow across them?

Structurally, the novel employs a simple but effective before-and-after premise reminiscent of Ian McEwan's Atonement (2001). In the weeks leading up to widowed matriarch Jenny Brodal's seventy-fifth birthday, Jon (criminally unfaithful husband), Siri (myopic, longsuffering wife), Alma (troubled pre-teen daughter), Liv (blameless sibling to Alma), and Milla (shapely babysitter) congregate in the family's ancestral summer home to prepare for the party and mix the cocktail of their various despairs. Siri works day and night in the restaurant business, Jon pretends to complete the last book in his trilogy, Jenny falls off the wagon after twenty years sober, Alma begins to develop a complex and Milla -- well, Milla's not part of the family. She's a doe babysitter, decided outsider and as the book's first act concludes, missing person.

And that's where The Cold Song, a cross-genre novel, begins to be more than the sum of its parts. Although we discover at the beginning of the novel that Milla has, in fact, been murdered, when she first disappears she's only that: a gone babysitter; a question unanswered. No sooner have the circumstances of that disappearance unraveled from the perspectives of Siri, Jon, Alma, Jenny, and Milla herself, than the story drops us in the midst of yet another unraveling -- this time of the family itself as they repair to their remortgaged house in Olso and attempt to navigate the aftermath of never quite knowing what happened to Milla.

Or do they?

Jon, a sociopathic genius when it comes to sleeping with other women and lying to his wife about it, begins to receive mournful and vaguely accusatory text-messages from Milla's grieving mother Amanda. (Texting becomes a motif in the novel, a sort existential grasping.) Meanwhile Alma misbehaves; Jenny continues to drink in the country; and Siri draws closer to facing Jon's demons, to which she has willfully blinded herself. And though she is cut from an outsider's cloth, it's around Milla's absence the family unravels, laying bare its anomie. Without their familial roles to protect them, we come to know them all too well.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, The Cold Song is a showcase for Ullmann's considerable powers of characterization. Jon gestures at Humbert, but isn't Humbertian. He doesn't seek to justify his lying and unfaithfulness; he simply allows them to run him around, and when he finally gets his breath, it's almost like they never happened. He observes of an attractive female journalist who has him over a barrel for not completing the third novel in his trilogy: "She had a PhD in literature and had had two collections of poetry published. Jon decided in advance not to sleep with her, she was twenty-seven, had milky thighs and a tattoo, but then he changed his mind. Her line of questioning was driving him crazy and maybe if he fucked her she'd shut up." It's an unfussy take on the grown-up male creep, which Ullmann inhabits with queasy aplomb.

But Ullmann's knack for person-making isn't limited to Jon; various others step off of the page, start taking a tour of the room where you're reading. Take Irma, for example, Jenny Brodal's giantess caretaker of twenty years, who plants her "enormous" chain-smoking flesh in doorways, raises ducklings in the "overgrown pond at the bottom of the garden" and carries "bedridden" Jenny "down the stairs like a little peacock."

When The Cold Song mines the vein of dark family drama, it works chillingly well; think Russell Banks's Affliction or Jeffrey Eugenides's The Virgin Suicides transposed into a Bergman landscape.

As a domestic roman dur, or murder mystery, however, the novel is less successful. Granted the eventual revelation of what happens to Milla on the night of Jenny's party is probably not the point, yet when Ullmann does get around to addressing it, putting on her Agatha Christie-wig and Simenon smoking jacket, the depiction comes off as descriptively lazy and even a little implausible. One suspects that in making what happened to Milla a gruesome mystery Ullmann means to juxtapose physical violence with emotional violence, abuses of flesh with abuses of trust, the mystery of a murdered girl with the mystery of why we lose touch with each other. But the answer is, finally, unsatisfying. We yearn for the pages when Milla was lost.

The Cold Song by Linn Ullmann, translated by Barbara J. Haveland
Other Press
ISBN: 978-1590516676
352 pages