FICTION: A couple’s code of silence takes its toll in the winner of the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize.
The ongoing obsession with Nordic noir — mysteries and thrillers written by Scandinavian authors — shows no sign of abatement. However, fans of authors such as Henning Mankell and Karin Fossum might want to step outside of the police procedural and explore Merethe Lindstrøm’s quiet, bleak and award-winning novel “Days in the History of Silence.”
It isn’t often that the adjective “bleak” is used in a complimentary fashion, but stay with me.
“Old age looks out over a gloomy landscape,” states the novel’s narrator, Eva, as she continues on to describe how Simon, her husband of 50 years, has slipped into silence. Eva and Simon have three grown daughters who have decided to take on greater decisionmaking roles in their parents’ lives by urging their mother to commit their father to a nursing home and hire household help.
As her husband fades into the sunset of dementia, Eva is left to reflect on their many deliberate silences throughout their long marriage: their decision not to tell their children about Simon’s painful experiences during World War II, or about Eva’s son that she gave up for adoption before marrying Simon, and about Simon and Eva’s unwillingness to understand each other’s emotional decisions regarding their separate pasts. “The lacking ability to accept an essential aspect of each other. My absent ability to acknowledge his sorrow, and his inability to accept my deficiency of sorrow, regret.”
Eva decides to take on a housekeeper, Marija, and she is surprised to find that both she and Simon quickly grow to enjoy Marija’s daily company. “It felt as though we had been waiting for someone or other. … It felt as though we had been waiting for her all the time.” Unfortunately, this new relationship is shattered when Marija’s presence encroaches on Eva’s and Simon’s fiercely kept secrets. Unable to tell their daughters why they fired Marija, the family splinters even more.
Lindstrøm’s writing style mirrors her narrator’s demeanor; her sentences are cold and remote, and there is no spare word or overly descriptive paragraph. These tactics make “Days in the History of Silence” all the more engrossing.
The layers of silence that are stacked so neatly within this narrative are skillfully and precisely constructed, so that peeling one back only releases another. There are no detectives or murders to be solved, but it is indeed bleak, and in some ways more frightening than any of its better-known peers.
Meganne Fabrega is a book critic and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.