FICTION: While staying at a summer house on the coast of Norway with a writer and his family, an au pair goes missing.
There are three deaths in “The Cold Song.” One begins the novel, another ends it, and deep in the center, a tragic third is barely spoken of. That death continues to hold those involved in stasis, like butterflies pinned in time. Syver is the phantom son and brother — the drowned boy dripping just in the periphery, grief for him manifested in his now-aged mother Jenny’s alcoholism and his sister Siri’s martyrdom. Siri is a successful chef, mother of two daughters, passively beleaguered as only a workaholic can be — doing everything: parenting, managing her brittle mother and enduring a husband who is a walking cliché.
Jon Dreyer was a successful novelist now plagued with writer’s block, gnashing it out in the attic of the family’s summer house, playing the present yet absent father with seemingly two modes: self-pity and philandering. Will he go as far as harming Milla, the family’s au pair? Someone does, with brute finality.
The novel’s most remarkable character and perhaps most reliable observer is Alma, Siri and Jon’s eldest daughter, juvenile and acting like it, perhaps loath to grow up if it means inhabiting the realm of adulthood her parents do.
Lacing the edges of the story are a trio of minor players: Irma, Jenny’s bulldoggish caregiver; Liv, the youngest daughter and family flower, and Amanda, Milla’s confused mother and photographer known for her portraits of Milla as a young child.
The author spent her childhood in a family packed with its own drama — her mother is actor Liv Ullmann, and her father director Ingmar Bergman. Ullmann perpetuates her family legacy today, contributing her creative presence while curating the Bergman Centre Foundation, a cultural retreat for artists, filmmakers and writers.
In “The Cold Song,” Ullmann’s rural Norway is an unfussy place, eloquent for its starkness, much like the spare language she paints it with. Her stage is less about physical place than mood and one’s place in the familial symmetry.
While much happens in this novel, the events feel secondary. The prose is taut, yet the pace is languid as summer in that before-the-storm tension.
There is Siri’s overdoing of the party for her mother; Jenny’s reluctance to play the good mother; Jon’s pigheadedness, and Milla’s discontent, which ultimately proves fatal. The real achievement of this novel is Ullmann’s gift to imbue the tension of a thriller via the unease of the mundane.
Yes, a murder occurs, but “The Cold Song” is more a mystery in the way most families tend to be mysteries unto themselves.
Minneapolis writer Sarah Stonich is the author of “Vacationland” and “These Granite Islands.” More at sarahstonich.com