From the blurb: “Four siblings. Two summer houses. One terrible secret. To what degree should the horrors of the past be allowed to shake the present? Stalked by the darkest of shadows from her childhood, a woman struggles against the tide dragging her back to the family she fled years ago. This emotionally searing novel is at once a wrenching look at a family fractured and a meditation on the nature of trauma and memory.”
Norwegian writer Vigdis Hjorth’s is very well known in her home country. She has written over twelve novels and won many prestigious Scandinavian prizes. I came across her name in a Swiss newspaper where she was mentioned as one of Norway’s most notable authors. Since it’s still Women in Translation Month, I thought she’d be a good choice.
Will and Testament was a huge success in Norway, and I can see why. It’s highly literary but nonetheless as captivating as a thriller. The plot is moving back and forth in time, slowly revealing the dark secrets at the heart of the dysfunctional family depicted in the novel.
Bergljot, our fifty-something first-person narrator, hasn’t seen her parents for twenty-three years, when she’s informed that her father has died. Already before his death, her siblings tried to involve her in their dispute about their parent’s will. Even though, their parents had promised, they would evenly divide their possessions among the four siblings, they clearly changed their mind as the two coveted holiday homes on the Norwegian seaside go to Bergljot’s younger sisters. Bergljot’s older brother is very upset about this and tries to convince Bergljot to take his side. While she too, is sad that her children won’t have the opportunity to spend their summers in one of the homes, she understands why her parents decided to act as they did. After their father’s death, the discussion is renewed and gets even more heated.
Jumping back and forth in time, Bergljot tells the story of her life and reveals, bit by bit, why she chose to break with her parents. When the two younger sisters were only babies, but the older ones seven and ten respectively, something terrible happened. Something that both parents wished the children had forgotten. Unfortunately, Bergljot’s’ turbulent love life leads her start a therapy and, so, the distant memory resurfaces. She confronts her parents, but they both deny anything has happened. To keep her own sanity, she breaks with them.
The secret, which is finally revealed, isn’t very surprising. Most readers will guess it from the beginning. And if that was all the book had to offer, I wouldn’t have been as impressed with it as I was. But it has so much more to offer. The character portraits, especially those of Bergljot and her mother are fantastic. The mother is one of those crazy, dysfunctional, larger-than-life mothers that populate so many books about dysfunctional families. For me she was especially chilling because she did and said a few things that sounded so much like my own mother that it made me shiver. She doesn’t live her life, she performs it. She lies and manipulates, is cruel and mean and distorts the truth to her own advantage.
The book reveals the intricate family dynamics in a truly admirable way. It also shows that when there are several siblings, each one of them might see the parents completely differently, have a totally different relationship with them. In Will and Testament it’s Bergljot’s tragedy, that her parents know very well that they treated Bergljot and her brother badly. Because they knew this and because they wanted to repress the memories, they treated the younger girls differently. By the time Bergljot accuses her parents, and drops the bomb, as she says, the younger sisters are firmly on the parent’s side.
I can imagine how painful it must be, to see a repressed memory resurface and then be told, you made it up. I could imagine that, for the longest time, one would doubt oneself. The reasons why Bergljot knows she’s remembering correctly is because she’s so damaged. She drinks far too much, falls for the wrong men. But she’s a terrific mother and her children are behind her all the time. Not for one second do they doubt her.
It took me a few pages to get into this book because it isn’t told chronologically, but once I got the structure, I liked it very much. I was impressed by the intricate way the family dynamics are described and by the subtle psychological insights. And while some of it is dark, it’s never depressing. Bergljot may be damaged but she’s true to herself and courageous. It’s not easy to face a hostile family front.
Will and Testament will be out in English in September. If you like stories about dysfunctional families, you shouldn’t miss this.