“The Blue Room” by Hanne Ørstavik

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Handpicked by Guardian literary critic Nicholas Lezard as one of the finest paperbacks of 2014, The Blue Room, or Like sant som jeg er virkelig in its original Norwegian title, was published by the admirable Peirene Press and quickly rose to the top of my TBR list over the Christmas period. The novella is written by an author who, despite received multiple awards and much acclaim in her native Norway, has never been accessible to an Anglophone audience before this publication. It seems surprising that an established author deemed one of her country’s finest writers has never before made it over the North Sea, and so credit is to Peirene Press for opening the door to Ørstavik’s work for Anglophone audiences, and doing so in a quality, crisp translation and a gorgeously produced paperback edition.

 

“I cannot get out. Something must have happened to the lock. I’ll have to wait until Mum comes home from work to help me. Everything was totally normal when I went to bed last night. This morning I was woken up by the sound of the front door. I looked at the clock. It was quarter past six. I assumed Mum had got up early and had just gone to fetch the paper, but then I heard nothing more.” – The opening of “The Blue Room”.

 

At large, The Blue Room charts the coming of age of Johanne, a pensive student in her early twenties in Oslo. When we meet Johanne at the beginning of the novel, her predicament is one shared by many young Europeans in the twenty-first century: she is living at her mother’s house, financially dependent yet independent and mature enough that she feels ready to fly the nest. A chance encounter during a study session at the library sees her come into contact with Ivar, an attractive local boy with whom a fulfilling relationship soon blossoms. As their love gathers momentum, Ivar proposes Johanne joins him on a trip he had planned to the United States. After much reflective dithering, she eventually agrees to accompany Ivar, but on the morning Johanna intends to meet Ivar and take her flight she wakes to find she is locked in her own bedroom from the outside.

 

The novella’s narrative follows no chronological structure and begins at what we find out is the novel’s end, in the blue room of the title (blue, ironically, a colour normally associated with great expanses, space and freedom) with an agitated and confused Johanne. It is from this position that Johanna unfurls her story to the reader, with all the benefit of hindsight. I would suggest that this is the reason that her voice is extremely thoughtful, reflective and imbued with meaning. It is a voice that I found to be distinctly ‘European’, exhibiting that forthright, slightly melancholic and richly pensive texture that you find in the films of Godard, Truffaut and other European directors who also frequently portray the trials of youth and the rocky road to adulthood. The opening passage, quoted above, also reminded me of the opening of Kafka’s Metamorphoses in its fragmented, first-person, immediate narrative style. Yet I think The Blue Room might best be served alongside that gem of French coming-of-age novels, Françoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse, with which the novel shares a number of illuminating similarities. Both Johanne and Sagan’s Parisian protagonist, Céline, mull over their stories in a cool, calm and ponderous first-person voice that is surprisingly nonchalant and allows you to calmly reflect on the novel’s goings-on.  Yet where Sagan’s novella is a joyful ode to the sea, sun, sand and earthly pleasures, Ørstavik’s is a brooding, complex book that gives an incisive look at familial relationships, at the adolescent desire for autonomy and independence clashing with the responsibility of family, with the sexual awakening of a young woman ebbing and flowing throughout the narrative.

 

“Walking into the kitchen. Meeting a familiar face. Laughing, talking, putting the kettle on. Lovers’ tiffs and the slamming of doors. Taking the days as they come, with no particular plan. And the worst is that they manage for themselves. They drift about and things turn out fine. I know I’m not like that. I have to struggle for what they take for granted. I have to play it safe. Have to stay on track, every day. It’s the little steps that count, straight ahead.” p.88

 

I saw The Blue Room as a clever suspended metaphor that reflects issues taking place in the twenty-first century. It is implied Johanne’s own mother locks her in her bedroom on the morning she is due to leave, yet her reason for doing so is never given. Is she trying to protect her daughter from making a rash decision? Is she trying to stop her daughter from achieving the loving and fulfilling relationship it seems she never had? Is she trying to punish Johanne for something? Is she trying to stifle Johanne’s maturation, a refusal to let her daughter grow up? Who knows, but as part of a generation when many young people are forced to live with their parents until their thirties for all sorts of financial and economic reasons, I felt Johanne’s situation was a poignant metaphor for those in society who feel mature and ready to become fully independent adults but simply cannot due to being ‘locked away’ by a society that offers little prospects in the job market and over-inflated house prices. This is obviously a very personal response to the story which is much more complex and multi-layered that I am suggesting here, but this is a reading I found interesting and something I thought I might share with other readers.

 

Whatever meaning you take from the ambiguous and peculiar predicament of her protagonist, Ørstavik’s engrossing exploration of the dawn of adulthood is extremely well written, thought provoking and pleasantly honest. The Blue Room is a compelling novella that conveys the tumultuous emotional and psychological labyrinth that takes us through from adolescence to adulthood. It is a serious, heartfelt coming-of-age story, without any didactic drivel or rambling clichés, and is instead fuelled with truth, feeling and a powerful narrative style.

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