Love may well be the most exalted of sentiments, but as the title of a novel it is bland and uninspiring. Authors have worked around this by taking love as a starting point and expanding and embellishing. Readers are enticed by titles that contain lovers (“Women in Love,” “The Love of the Last Tycoon”) or hint at special circumstances (“Love in the Time of Cholera,” “Love in a Cold Climate”) or promise mystery and desire (“From Russia, With Love,” “A Spy in the House of Love”).
But just as we should never judge a book by its cover, so too should we never judge one by its title. Hanne Orstavik’s “Love” suffers from an unoriginal title but everything else about it is, quite simply, exceptional. Published to great acclaim in her native Norway in 1997, it has only now been translated into English (elegantly so by Martin Aitken). If this book is an indication of Orstavik’s talent, then translations of the rest of her work can’t come soon enough.
“Love” unfolds over the course of a single night. It is the story of two people — not star-crossed lovers but a single woman and her son. Both have recently moved to a remote town in the frozen north of Norway. “Here it’s winter all the time,” muses 8-year-old Jon. The following day is his ninth birthday, but unbeknownst to him his mother, Vibeke, has forgotten, so absorbed is she with her own hopes and dreams.
Undaunted by the snow, she heads off to the library, and from there to the local fairground where she meets a man who invites her back to his trailer for coffee and whiskey. As the evening wears on, she blots Jon from her mind completely and ventures out to a bar with her handsome new acquaintance. Meanwhile, Jon roams the streets, daydreaming, selling lottery tickets and also depending on the kindness of strangers — naively thinking his mother is back home baking him a birthday cake.
All of which may seem like minor happenings, inconsequential adventures. But bubbling beneath the surface is a steadily intensifying disquiet. Both Orstavik’s lonely souls, desperate for warmth and human contact, end up being overly trusting. Their small, resolute steps along separate, divergent paths lead them further away from each other and into blind situations fraught with potential peril and possible heartache.
Tension continues to mount, right up to the last devastating chapter. One way Orstavik engineers this is by constantly flitting between her characters. Jon disappears into an old man’s basement and Vibeke goes for a nocturnal ride in her man’s jeep, and in each case our dread is manipulated and the outcome prolonged due to back-and-forth cliffhanger cuts.
This is a short, suspenseful winter’s tale crafted in beautifully spare and precise prose. It can be read in a few hours but its singular effects haunt the reader for a long time afterward.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
By: Hanne Orstavik, translated from the Norwegian by Martin Aitken.
Publisher: Archipelago Books, 125 pages, $17.
Event: 5 p.m. May 6, Norway House, 913 E. Franklin Av., Mpls.