Inspired by the increasing amount of literature in translation I seem to be reading of late, as well as a shameful love of lists, I’ve decided to try to read a few of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize titles, which announced its longlist last month. There will only be a few of these (even though the list looks more interesting than the Booker longlist, which I ploughed right through), and constraints of time mean they may be somewhat shorter than usual. First up is Linn Ullmann’s fourth novel, A Blessed Child (2005, tr. 2008 by Sarah Death).
Of the titles on the Independent longlist, A Blessed Child is the one which looks most like traditional literary fiction – good old British literary fiction – an impression mainly based on the tastefully stylish cover and the quote of praise: “clear-sighted, large-hearted fiction.” Yet the good news is that despite surface smoothness in the prose, A Blessed Child is spikier and more surprising than I was expecting.
The story is the old trope of a family reunion which enables the author to explore her characters’ pasts. The USP here is that the three sisters at the centre of the story – Erika, Laura and Molly – have the same father but different mothers. Their father, Isak, was not a one-woman man, as we find out on the third page when his wife Rosa is described as “quite different from his previous wife and mistresses”. At this point the canny reader makes a mental note to wonder whether Isak might be based on the author’s own father: Linn Ullmann is the daughter of Ingmar Bergman, who had nine children to six different women.
Such extracurricular thoughts do not have time to marinade, however, as Ullmann keeps the reader on their toes with a flurry of memories and characters presented through Erika’s thoughts as she heads for her father’s home on the island of Hammarsö. What a relief it is to read fictional characters presented so plausibly – in snatches, back and forth through Erika’s memory – so that their personas build up through a sort of layering. In particular Ullmann is very good on childhood and youth – not only its own qualities, but its interaction with adulthood; its own, and its parents’. She presents Laura now, as a mother of a teenage son, and then, as a teenager herself. The writing is sensuous (“Erika lay in the middle of a flower meadow. The backs of her knees and the insides of her wrists and her neck and scalp were itching: it was the insects climbing over her; it was the ticks latching on to her to suck”) and even sexual:
Erika and Laura wore shorts and washed-out pink T-shirts that strictly speaking they had grown out of. Both had long blond hair, long tanned Barbie-doll legs, and little handfuls of girlish bottom that wiggled from side to side as they trudged all the way from the shop to Isak’s house, each with a dripping ice-cream cone in her hand.
The senses are a recurring theme in the book, particularly in Isak’s profession as a gynaecologist who helped develop ultrasound: “Sounds attracted to or repelled by each other: sounds that create an image.”
Isak could hear sounds that no one else could hear. She had read that in an article about him in Life. That is, it wasn’t that he heard the sounds; he saw them on a screen. A throbbing fetal heart. The outline of a brain, looking like a shriveled date. The shadow of two babies instead of one in the mother’s womb.
This works as a handy metaphor for Ullmann to describe a father and his daughters, their relationship distant but close, estranged but interdependent. “Laura, who knew their father best, used to say Isak could hear everything. He could hear what Laura and Erika were saying to each other, even if they were a long way off. He could even hear what they were thinking. Words and thoughts could be picked up and registered as dots and lines on a screen to make a picture.”
The story moves on to the other sisters, Laura and Molly, and ultimately the reader understands what lies in their joint pasts and what happened to a childhood friend of theirs. This revelation, in fact, is not especially surprising and for me was much weaker than the beautifully told approach to it (and retreat from it). Overall, A Blessed Child is not a groundbreaking read, but it is a satisfying one.