In 2014, a spellbinding, genre-blending and prizewinning novel from a talented young Norwegian author was made available to Anglophone readers. Gaute Heivoll's "Before I Burn," an account of an arsonist's destruction of an isolated village — and an attempt to understand his mind and motivation — skillfully melded fact and fiction, stark detail and lyrical grace, visceral thrills and psychological mystery.
Now, three years on, comes a second Heivoll novel in English, superbly translated by Nadia Christensen. "Across the China Sea" has the same curious charm as its predecessor but broader scope, richer textures and greater emotional depth. It opens in 1994 with an unnamed man — the book's narrator — clearing out the house he grew up in. As he sorts through his dead parents' belongings he soon finds himself sifting memories of his unique family history.
Both narrator and reader are transported back to the last days of the German occupation of Norway. A family relocates from Oslo to a rural community in the south. The parents turn their new home into an asylum and in time welcome in eight mentally disabled patients: three adult men from other care facilities and five young siblings rescued from squalor and neglect. Over three decades this extended family pulls together and falls apart.
For a while, all is peaceful, the asylum a quiet refuge from the roar of the city and the horror of war. Shadows emerge — the children are mocked by locals; one is given to howling "almost evilly," another screams near water — but no darkness falls. Then one day the narrator's mother enjoys a spontaneous swim with her children. "I'd never seen her like that before," he comments. Shortly afterward he sounds an ominous note: "I never saw her like that again." Disaster strikes: a cart tips over and kills his sister. Ravaged by grief, his mother disappears, leaving her son confused and bereft.
Heivoll's novel is no grisly slice of Nordic noir, and its controlled prose and slow-burning drama are at a remove from the digressive, freewheeling, minutiae-stuffed riffs of fellow countryman Karl Ove Knausgaard. A closer compatriot would be Per Petterson, whose fiction is also characterized by deceptive calm and icy clarity.
But Heivoll stands alone with his lush and quirkily beautiful descriptions of his pastoral surrounds. "Everything blossomed, and the bees flew through the evenings as if they carried the weight of their dreams on their backs." In the fall, "A faint white mist hung in the garden, as if someone had tried to erase a small part of the world."
At one juncture the narrator tells us that "Time stopped the day the cart tipped over, but still the weeks slipped by." Via Proustian reminiscence, Heivoll's mesmerizing and affecting novel travels through the years, from childhood to adulthood, and reminds us that for all the vicissitudes and tragedies — deaths, deteriorations, departures — seasons change and life goes on.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.