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Bios & Memoirs
A Flemish-Belgian writer "reinvents" his grandfather to brilliant and dramatic effect.
By Gunnhild Øyehaug, translated from the Norwegian by Kari Dickson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017. 176 pages
The quirky stories of Norwegian writer Gunnhild Øyehaug's establish a wintery plainness most suddenly turn on end. In "It's Snowing," three townies sit around a diner table mulling over a girl who abruptly moved out of town years before. But there she is, Helene, apparition-like, in from out of the snow, so what to do? Silence rules until she's next sighted through the diner windowpane, staring straight at them, which is when she slips a gun out of a bag and pokes it in her mouth. In the title story a boy soon to become an adult is literally tied to his mother by an umbilical chord that can't be severed, even after her death. To which a doctor says, "We'll have to tie a small knot in it, to stop her death from feeding into you."
The twisted knots these stories lay bare are usually not as surreal as Øyehaug's umbilical invention, but entanglement is anything but a state of grace. Married adults are in constant crisis. Children desperate to pee hold out in their rooms, fearing social interaction. Dying Roar and his gay lover put small talk ahead of affection until they run out of words. Andreas fails to appear on stage for a long monologue eventually eliciting applause among those convinced his absence is an exercise in metaphysical entertainment. It's not. Andreas, knotted in a fetal position in his room, eventually "stands up and goes out onto the stage to receive his applause, as if it's something he has to do." Elsewhere, an enlightened deer faces a conundrum. "I am supposed to roam around in the forest and not be seen. But it's the very premise of my life that is now making me miserable. I want to be seen." Even if that means being shot.
Øyehaug's creatures and humans suffer from a kind of quintessential stage fright, a Nordic impairment of emotional expression. All stew within. They speculate on speculation. They take refuge in Ikea to fend off panic attacks. They drift off easily into the tallest of tales. They're curled up in their own heads and further trapped by their creator's fascination with literary symbolism.
In "Air," Geir watches as Asta jumps into a frozen fjord. Should he rescue her? But wait, it's cold. And why did she do it? After which soaked Asta emerges no worse for wear. Gerd's deadpan quip: "I've heard that you have to tie yourself to the stone." Trained as a literary theorist, Øyehaug published these acclaimed stories in 2004. It took 15 years, too long, for an English-language publisher to wake to the nimble strangeness at their core.
Reviewed by Book Staff