Dea Brøvig conjures up a desolate and harsh debut novel which is mirrored by the unforgiving Norwegian winters which is described so vividly that I longed to pass the young Else Dybdahl yet another jumper to keep her warm on her ferry home from the town at the end of each school day.
The story is split a past that covers the time from 1974-1976 and the present day, 2009, where Else is forced to confront those memories she had hoped were safely buried when her boyfriend returns to the island to live in his family home with his young wife and children.
We know that Else is the mother to Marianne, and Grandmother to eleven year old Liv who she lives with in the same town that she grew up in but what we don’t know is how Else came to have a baby which is where the narration begins, at an early age. A shocking event especially considering how important the church is to the inhabitants.
This is a bleak story as we peek behind the door to the realities of the Dybdahl household, one where the family turn up to church no matter how many bruises Else’s mother Dagny has to cover with powder, a household ruled by the ups and downs of an alcoholic father and husband. The descriptions of the hardships that feature in the daily life of the Dybdahl’s along with the cold and wet feet from snow and ice only serve to make this an almost unbearably claustrophobic read.
Brøvig cleverly keeps the pace slow reflecting the long and cold days as Else and Dybdhal struggle to keep life moving forwards with the small relief of a visit from a travelling circus, so that the reveal happens when the tension has been ramped up to the maximum. Else has school to distract her but she is ever mindful of the cow that needs milking as well as the pressures her boyfriend, Lars, heaps on her to sneak out join him. With the fire and brimstone sermons seemingly aimed at the inhabitants by the fearsome Pastor, Brøvig accurately captures the desires and fears that rule Else’s days not least the shame she would heap on her family if caught.
A book which is thought-provoking, rather than enjoyable, this would work well as an interesting, if somewhat harrowing, book club read.
I received a copy of this book from the publishers Random House UK in return for this unbiased review.