Thursday, 12 June 2014

The Blue Room by Hanne Ørstavik

 review by Maryom

 One morning Johanne wakes up to discover that she's locked in her bedroom. While she waits for someone to come and release her, her thoughts wander backwards and forwards, over recent events, her plans for the future, her relationships with her mother and boyfriends. This should have been the day she was going to America with her boyfriend to start a new life. Instead she's stuck in her room, unable to get to the airport...but doesn't really seem that concerned...

This second book in Peirene's Coming of Age series is again a story of someone who doesn't. The Dead Lake  told the tale of a boy who didn't grow up physically; The Blue Room brings us a twenty-year old psychology student who hasn't grown up emotionally, who hasn't freed herself from her dominating mother's apron strings - and who doesn't really want to.

I found this a rather troubling read - Johanne was a difficult main character for me; manipulated and controlled by her mother, she was too meek and mild, too seeking of approval, and too accepting of, even craving, punishment for my liking. Her relationship with her mother, Unni, is extraordinarily close, possibly forced by the lack of privacy in their lives. Unni doesn't appear openly dominating, which may have been easier to rebel against, but bends Johanne to her will through carefully doled out praise and disapproval. This relationship has soured all others - friends, particularly boyfriends, have to gain her mother's approval. Johanne going to Church is ok - it reinforces the concept of obedience; going to parties with friends isn't - it might give her a taste for freedom. Johanne in turn seems to dream of swapping one subservient relationship for another - with her new boyfriend, of whom her mother doesn't approve. Her dreams open a disturbing view of her personality - pleasant, enjoyable scenes shift and change into abuse to which she meekly submits.

I felt there was a certain level of ambiguity to the telling of this story. It isn't really clear whether the door lock is broken or whether Unni has locked Johanne in. Even trapped in her room, Johanne is extremely passive - she doesn't shout for help from the neighbours or passers-by but sits and waits till her mother returns. Is this symbolic that she can't free herself from her relationship with her mother and is waiting for someone to do it for her? Is she even really locked in or just incapacitated by fear?

Did I enjoy it? A difficult question to answer; it's certainly a page-turner, one where I was egging the heroine on to stand up for herself and break free but Johanne is too meek and accepting of her fate for me to sympathise much.

translated by Deborah Dawkin

Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher - Peirene Press

Genre - Adult Literary Fiction

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