I had not heard of the Norwegian bestseller An Ode to Darkness before I spotted it in the library. I was intrigued by the title, and decided to borrow it, keen as I am to read about all manner of non-fiction topics. In this, a series of five short essays, Sigri Sandberg ‘explores our intimate relationship with the dark: why we are scared of it, why we need it and why the ever-encroaching light is damaging our well-being.’
Sandberg lives between northern Norway and Oslo. In An Ode to Darkness, she ‘meditates on the cultural, historical, psychological and scientific meaning of the darkness, all the while testing the limits of her own fear.’ The book covers a trip which she made alone to her family’s isolated cabin in Finse, and spans the five days of her visit. The cabin is situated in the mountains, almost 200 kilometres northwest of Oslo. She decided to embark on her trip in order to ‘seek out natural darkness, knowledge and the night sky – and to see how long I dare stay.’ Her ‘all-consuming fear’ of the dark is exacerbated when she is isolated and alone, and so spending days in a secluded cabin was a real challenge for Sandberg. She was keen to get to the stage where she could ‘be there without someone to hold me when darkness falls.’
In Finse, Sandberg is highly isolated; there are no roads into the village, and the nearest shop is located miles away from her cabin. During the winter, which is when she visits, her closest neighbour is elsewhere, and she really learns what it means to be alone. When she first arrives, Sandberg writes: ‘Even though I’m doing this of my own free will, I’m dreading the darkness so much that I can feel it in my chest and down in my feet. It hurts. I know the darkness will envelop me, not gently, but hard… I can feel it in my bones…’.
Sandberg begins An Ode to Darkness by posing a somewhat poignant question: ‘When did you last see the stars?’ I lived in Glasgow for three years, and moved to London last year; both cities are polluted and often cloudy, and one can often only make out the stars if they travel beyond the suburbs. I know completely what Sandberg means when she writes: ‘If you live in a city and look out of the window, there will be a greyish-yellow haze between you and the Milky Way. Even if it is night. Even if it is winter.’ This drowns out completely the ability to see stars.
Sandberg questions, in her introduction, what so much artificial light is doing to us, to our ‘sleep patterns and rhythms and bodies’. She includes some rather startling facts; that sleep disorders are on the rise, that there are hardly any places in the world which are not now polluted by artificial light, and that sixty percent of Europeans and eighty percent of North Americans cannot see the stars where they live. She muses upon definitions of what truly constitutes the night, our sleep and its effects, hibernation, mental health, and dreams and nightmares. She then goes on to discuss the history of human relationships with darkness; we have always seen it as ‘an enemy, like the cold, something unsafe – and light was by definition good.’
Throughout An Ode to Darkness, Sandberg writes of others who have ventured into the dark, for various reasons. Of particular interest to her is the story of Christiane Ritter who, in 1934, went to join her husband, who was working as a trapper on Svålbard. This small group of islands is found halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole. Here, Ritter experienced constant winter darkness, as well as constant daylight during the summer months, and fell in love with the place. Christiane’s story, which has recently been translated into English, is threaded throughout the book, and provides both similarities and contrasts to Sandberg’s own experiences. I love the way in which Christiane’s story runs parallel to her own; it adds a lot of depth to what would otherwise be a brief, and potentially a very singular, memoir.
First published in 2019, and translated into English by Siân Mackie, An Ode to Darkness is a book which I would highly recommend. It is the first book specifically about darkness which I have read, but it certainly gave me the push to think about darkness, and my own experiences within it.
Sandberg expresses, quite beautifully, why we need the darkness in our lives. Her approach – to spend five days in an isolated cabin in Norway’s north, and then to write about it – is simple, yet highly effective. An Ode to Darkness is highly readable, and faultlessly translated. She reaches her goal, to ‘make sense of the dark’, and helps us, the reader, to do the same.