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THE COLD SONG
by Linn Ullman and Barbara J. Haveland, trans.
Other Press, April 2014
328 pages
$15.95
ISBN: 1590516672


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

In 2008, a nineteen-year-old who had a job as nanny with a family spending the summer on the Norwegian coast disappeared. Her body turns up two years later, carelessly buried in the woods where it is discovered by three young boys in search of the treasure they themselves had buried a few months earlier. Once the body is discovered, it is a crime easily solved.

What is less easy to deal with are the tensions within the family that first the presence and then the absence of the nanny, Milla, expose. Siri Brodal who runs a restaurant nearby in the summer, is married to Jon Dreyer, a novelist suffering from serious writer's block. They have two daughters - Alma, 12, who is, to put it kindly, rather odd and Liv, six years younger, fair-haired and delightful. They are all staying at Siri's childhood home, where Jenny Brodal, Siri's mother, still lives. She is about to celebrate her seventy-fifth birthday by falling off the wagon she's been on for decades in anticipation of the party she does not want to attend but which her daughter has insisted on catering.

It is difficult to give an account of what this novel is like without making it sound either Gothic or ridiculous, or both. In fact, it is neither. It is a finely-tuned and cool treatment of the tensions in a modern family. Siri is determined to display a normal, healthy relation with her mother, but it is a losing proposition. Her mother has never forgiven her for something she may have done when she was six, so long ago that Siri herself is not quite sure if she is guilty or not. Thus the gestures she makes as dutiful daughter are met with scorn and resistance on Jenny's part and, when Siri seems not to hear her, by downing three bottles of claret. Siri's husband, Jon, is involved in several elaborate charades of his own. He retreats daily to his study where he does not write the third book in his trilogy, the first two volumes of which have been successes. Instead he writes emails to a woman with whom he is having an affair, torrid emails that he deletes before sending, as he really doesn't much care for the woman. He harbours lustful thoughts about the nanny, though he is reluctant to proceed. He presents himself as a loving husband and father, and he is one, insofar as he is able. The couple circle each other warily, unwilling to fracture the facade of civility their marriage has become.

Their older daughter, Alma, is by no means as restrained. She clasps her father in extravagant embraces, shouts obscenities at her mother. She appears seriously disturbed, but neither of her parents appears to acknowledge that there is something wrong, not even when she is expelled from school for an assault. In their defence, it must be said that all the families we learn anything about are in serious trouble and it is the children who bear the brunt of the adult unhappiness in their turn as did their parents when they were young.

The nanny, Milla, is the presence that tips the delicate balance of the family she was supposed to assist. Nineteen years old, she is brimming with youthful desire, a ripe readiness that is almost more than Jon can bear. Siri both knows it and denies the knowledge. She can barely speak civilly to Milla and it is this that sends Milla away from the birthday party and toward her death. So impacted are both Siri's and Jon's feelings toward the girl that they are incapable of communicating with her mother after she disappears and even after her body is found, even though the mother constantly tries to get in touch, peppering them with imploring, frantic emails.

THE COLD SONG is being marketed as crime fiction and readers of the genre may be disappointed at the small role the actual murder occupies in the book. We know on page one the name of the victim and fairly quickly that of her assailant. There is no police investigation, no trial, no punishment. Instead there is a close, subtle, and quite rivetting examination of what happened before Milla died, what happened after and a tiny, wavering hope that there is a way out of the stasis that grips this family.

The boys who find Milla's body were looking for a treasure they themselves had buried. It is one they never recover. The original Norwegian title of the book, Det dyrebare, evidently refers to lost or buried treasure, and seems to be a clue to the central theme of the novel, the irretrievable loss of something precious, discarded for no good reason.

Lin Ullman is the daughter of Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullman and the book has something of the quality of the films the two made together. Much is unspoken, much must be inferred, but the psychological atmosphere of the novel settles over the reader and enfolds us, making us determined to find out what we can about these characters who are so vividly alive in all their flaws and imperfections.

Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, April 2014

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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