I’ve never been to any of the Nordic countries, so reading this Danish novel was armchair travel for me.
It’s the story of Solvej, a young woman whose choices have compromised all kinds of relationships. When the story opens she is driving to an isolated farmhouse that she has rented so that she can be near her small daughter. Her ex-husband Morten and his new unfriendly wife have custody of the child because Solvej took off with a lover and abandoned her. Now she misses Christiane and wants to re-establish the maternal relationship. She has no money, no job, and Morten won’t let her see Christiane more than once a fortnight.
Solvej’s mother has come with her on this journey. She has her doubts about the wisdom of Solvej’s decision, but in a gentle contrast to the way Solvej has put her own needs first, she is there for her daughter when she is needed. They share the perils of the journey over unfamiliar remote roads, slippery with mud. She makes a meal while Solvej unpacks her scanty belongings. She stays for a short while to see her daughter established in the farmhouse. But unspoken between mother and daughter there is the gulf between how the generations have lived their lives and the choices they have made.
Behind all the sincere things they said, and behind the quiet rattle of cups on saucers, they were having a quite different conversation. Was it the same one? It was impossible to know. But whatever Solvej said, her mother listened with infinite patience. Take this off my shoulders, Mother. Of course, Solvej. (p. 8)
And it is so cold, so very, very cold. Reading these early chapters set in the Danish winter will make you glad you are snuggled under the blankets as you read it! The way Jessen evokes the cold of the farmhouse before Søren turns up to help her sort out the blockage in the chimney is emblematic of Solvej’s frozen soul.
Søren is the local Mr Fixit and a complete creep. And yes, Solvej makes another stupid decision to let him into her life. Sex as a palliative for melancholy and sex as excitement in a dull life are a theme in this book, and alas, it seems also that it is women who pay the price. It’s not a moralising book, but it’s exploring the idea that no, you can’t have it all, because guilt, grief and resentment catch up with you. The generation that tried to have it all is now being judged by their children, and found wanting.
Solvej eventually gets a job as a health visitor, a job somewhat like the ‘baby health centre sisters’ who used to make home visits to new mothers here in Australia. The Baby Health Centre was a hive of activity when I was a young mother living in a country town in the early 1970s, and as far as I was concerned they were angels. Their help, guidance and reassurance was invaluable, and I used to look forward to my regular visits to the Centre where of course there were also plenty of other young mums with whom I soon established great friendships.
I’m afraid I never gave any thought to the worries that the sisters might have had. The system in Denmark seems to be a bit different in that the home visits went beyond the first week or two, and Solvej has to learn not to make judgements about some of the families she encounters. The irony isn’t overplayed, but Solvej is young herself, and preoccupied with her own problems, and it is she who has to decide when to intervene and when to leave things be. It isn’t easy for her when she suspects that a child isn’t developing normally or that there’s domestic violence in the home.
The blurb calls this novel a thriller, but it’s more of a psychological thriller and if you read it expecting some great climax or cathartic moment you will be disappointed. There are moments of drama, but it is mostly a slow unfolding of the lives of women and the consequences of the decisions they make. It’s badged as the winner of The Golden Laurels which (not to be confused with film awards of the same name) is a Danish bookseller award.
There’s a very good review of this book at a Danish literary magazine called Kunst and a moody trailer at You Tube. (Put your jumper and some warm socks on before you watch it).
Author: Ida Jessen
Title: The Children
Translated from the Danish by Don Bartlett
Publisher: UWAP (University of Western Australia Publishing) 2012
Source: Review copy courtesy of UWAP.
Fishpond: The Children
Or direct from UWAP (where you can also read an extract and find Book Group notes).