Book review: The Blue Room by Hanne Ørstavik

Look in the mirror and you will see only a false reflection of your true self…

The Blue Room by Hanne Ørstavik
The Blue Room by Hanne Ørstavik

Just as a reverse image belies reality, hearing one side of a story can never provide the full picture.

It’s a concept that Hanne Ørstavik plays to a menacing tune in a stunning novella which lays bare a coldly compelling mother-daughter relationship, and proves that the dark secrets of a woman’s mind are as impenetrable as the locked door which forms the story’s central motif.

And even when the key is slowly turned, there is no guarantee that what our unreliable narrator invites us to see and hear is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth…

The Blue Room is the second book in Peirene Press’s impressive Coming-of-Age series and gives English speakers the chance to revel in the work of a big name in contemporary Norwegian literature.

Ørstavik has won a host of literary prizes but it’s only now that her shrewd and psychologically adroit mini-masterpiece has been translated into English, thanks to an independent publisher determined to bring the best of Europe to Britain’s shore and a wonderfully sympathetic translation by Deborah Dawkin.

And to miss The Blue Room would be to miss out on an extraordinary literary conjuring trick as Ørstavik repeatedly and joyfully toys with both our understanding and our expectations.

On the morning that she is supposed to be leaving home to fly to Pennsylvania with her boyfriend Ivar, Johanne wakes up to find she has been locked in her bedroom by her sinister mother Unni.

She could try to force open the door, she could open the window and shout for help, she could hammer on the walls, she might even find a way to climb out of her fourth floor window and escape.

Instead psychology student Johanne takes a mental tour around her head, teasing out details of her life with her manipulative mother, the boyfriend she has known for only a few weeks and her personal brand of devout Christianity which views God as ‘a happy pill.’

The small loft apartment she shares with her selfish, secretive mother in Oslo was chillingly claustrophobic long before it became her prison, and their enforced and sometimes unnatural intimacy appears to have bred a similarly unhealthy interdependence.

But there are blatant contradictions in Johanne’s account which make us increasingly alert to her trustworthiness as a narrator. Why is her libidinous mother so protective of her daughter’s virginity, why does Johanne’s absent brother hardly feature in her story, what is the meaning of the violent sexual fantasies that repeatedly hijack Johanne’s thoughts and why does the girl constantly fear ‘financial ruin’ and ‘stepping off course’?

Nothing is certain, no motive is clear and no person is above suspicion in Ørstavik’s perfectly pitched, tightly stitched and captivating brain-teaser.

The only absolute is that this is an author with an acute intellect, a vast analytical capacity and a very rare talent.

(Peirene, paperback, £12)