Hanne Orstavik’s The Blue Room is the fourteenth book to be published by the wonderful Peirene Press, a publishing house which we are incredibly fortunate to have. Their intention is to bring the best of European fiction to the forefront of our consciousness, providing us with powerful and memorable stories which will linger on in our minds for months to come. The Times Literary Supplement deems Peirene’s publications as ‘literary cinema for those fatigued by film’, and as each is designed to take no more than two hours to read, they are the perfect treats to settle down with.
Orstavik’s novella, which has been translated from its original Norwegian by Deborah Dawkin, and is the first of her works to appear in English, is billed as ‘a gripping portrayal of a mother-daughter relationship that will send a chill down your spine’. Meike Ziervogel, the founder of Peirene Press, believes that ‘The Blue Room holds up a mirror to a part of the female psyche that yearns for submission… It then delves further to analyse the struggle of women to separate from their mothers – a struggle that is rarely addressed in either literature or society’.
The first person protagonist of the piece is Johanne, a woman in her young twenties, who is living with her mother in Oslo and studying psychology at the local University. At the very beginning of the novella, Johanne finds herself locked into her room, following her announcement that she is to be travelling to the United States the very next day with Ivar, a man whom she has met in her University canteen and fallen in love with. When she discovers that she cannot leave, she says: ‘I cannot get out. Something must have happened to the lock. I’ll have to wait until Mum comes home from work to help me’. She goes on to describe her surroundings: ‘This is my room. Here I am. Inside a small cube. Floor area: six square metres. Height: three and a half metres. Twenty one cubic metres’. Rather than trying to attract help from her window, Johanne, a rather devout character, goes on to tell us that ‘I’ve decided to leave it to God, to put my fate in his hands’.
The Blue Room is quite profound at times, particularly as Johanne asks a lot of pertinent questions throughout her narrative. The prose which Orstavik has crafted seems rather innocent and naive at first, and the darker aspects of it come as short, sharp shocks, which the reader is never quite prepared for. Whilst other elements are entwined within the plot – the love story, for example, and musings about different aspects of psychology – the relationship between Johanne and her mother is the novella’s focal point. ‘We belong together like two clasped hands’, Johanne writes. Her mother is psychologically cruel, and she instils such fear within her daughter, making her expect the worst in every situation. She essentially cripples Johanne with doubts and fear. As one might expect from such behaviour, The Blue Room is rather dark on the whole. Johanne often has brutal visions which seem to come out of nowhere, and her self doubt creeps in as the narrative gains speed.
In The Blue Room, past and present converge to give the novella an interesting structure. No episodes of Johanne’s life are quite separated from others, and the plot feels almost circular in consequence. Orstavik’s idea is clever, particularly in terms of the plot spilling outside of the small room which Johanne is trapped within. The story is unpredictable, and it has the power both to surprise and overwhelm. Throughout, one gets the impression that Orstavik’s writing suits her narrator completely; Johanne feels real, and her vulnerability continually seeps through the cracks in her outer facade. The Blue Room is a thought-provoking novella, which certainly deserves its place upon Peirene’s diverse list.