As a rule I think Peirene Press are pretty fantastic, and their output is always both unusual and interesting. Given that they only publish books that have never before been translated into English, to a degree this makes sense. All the stories are a little quirky and unconventional, which I like. But for me The Blue Room takes ‘quirky’ to another level.
After reading only twenty or so pages I just thought ‘this is one of the most unsettling books I’ve ever read’. It certainly isn’t fun, and Johanne’s narration is very intense and claustrophobic. She wakes up one morning to find that her mother has locked her in her bedroom. So far, so thriller. The novel traces Johanne’s day as she wonders why this has happened, as well as whether she will have to pee in her wastepaper basket and what she’s going to wear since her wardrobe is out in the hall. Interspersed with this are reflections on certain episodes from the recent past. Johanne tells the reader about some of her friends and her everyday life as a psychology student – and her life with her mother. They live in what appears to be a very small flat (her mother’s bed is in the living room), and the only doors appear to be those to the bathroom and Johanne’s room. She and her mother live in close quarters, and have a very close relationship – very close, and a little odd. They seem to be very aware of each other bodily functions and there are several instances in which they talk when one of them is on the loo, and then opens the door without pulling up their underwear. I cringed when Johanne shouts at her mother through the bathroom door that she uses too much toilet paper, and her mother then opens the door to talk to her, ‘sticking in’ a tampon in the process. This is just too close for me.
Johanne’s mother is a bit, shall we say, unusual. She clearly wants to keep her daughter close, but also dishes out criticism and is often over-sensitive. Both she and Johanne are very religious, and she has instilled in Johanne her own thoughts about men – that they are untrustworthy beasts who would just as soon tie you up and rape you as look at you. Honestly – she expresses that view more than once. Though Johanne is at university, her mother treats her like a child and insists she doesn’t yet understand anything about love. A very telling scene occurs when Johanne convinces her mother to come with her to a screening of ‘Betty Blue’, which Johanne has seen before but her mother hasn’t. Johanne tells her it’s a love story, and that she’ll like it. Afterwards her mother has some sort of hysterical panic attack outside the cinema, telling Johanne that she is cruel and thoughtless – how could she think she would like it? It was all sex, and that is not love. She convinces Johanne that she knows nothing, and that she is filled with sinful thoughts.
To me Johanne seemed almost as nutty as her mother. She is a psychology student and is also highly religious. This is fine, but she is plagued by thoughts about her own worth and whether or not she will go to Hell. Trapped in her room, she hopes that God will lead her out and that He will guide her to the right path – again fine, but she has a strange dichotomy of dedication to God, a belief in science – and, crucially, a preoccupation with what might be referred to as ‘unconventional’ sexuality. Whilst daydreaming or thinking about her friends and mother, striking and often disturbing sexual images pop into her mind, and she describes them vividly: a young girl chained to a bed and used by a man who visits every hour; a vision of herself having a very submissive encounter with her imagined mentor, an old bearded man with a ‘huge belly’. These images are unpleasant and their position within her pious thoughts hits the reader in the face. While Johanne derives sexual pleasure from them, the reader wonders what has made her create such violent and graphic scenarios. She is a ‘good girl’ preoccupied with both violent sexuality and pleasing her cold, cloying mother. The Blue Room was not quite how I thought it would be. While psychologically interesting, I did not enjoy reading it and I did not warm to any of its characters. I ended up reading it in short bursts as it was so claustrophobic and intense, and in the last third I have to admit I skimmed a few pages to get ahead faster. I hoped there was some sort of positive outcome and Johanne was able to carry on with her life – for on the day she is trapped in her room she is due to fly to America with a boy from university. So what are her mother’s motives?
This is a very intelligently written book and I admire Orstavik’s courage for writing such a dark story. I’ve read a lot of positive reviews of The Blue Room (from Word by Word, The Writes of Women, and The Little Reader Library) and I think a lot of people will enjoy it for its depth and intrigue, as well as the writing and the issues it raises about mother-daughter relationships and feminism. I appreciated all these aspects – but for me this was a much too unsettling and unhappy tale to enjoy.
Originally published as Like Sant Som Jeg Er Virkelig (which according to The Guardian ‘roughly translates’ as “This is what I really am”) by Forlaget Oktober in Norway in 1999, and reprinted in English by Peirene Press in June 2014. My copy was kindly provided by Peirene Press for review.
8 thoughts on “The Blue Room by Hanne Orstavik (tr. Deborah Dawkin)”
Definitely not an enjoyable book in the sitting down to read for pleasure sense. I admired the writer’s skill enormously though, particularly in the way she makes us feel so unsettled. I can understand why that can be overwhelming and very uncomfortable though. I did like how much ambiguity there is in the story too though – so much to discuss!
Thanks for the mention.
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You’re welcome – I thought your review of it was great. This book made me think a lot about why we choose certain books and why we decide we like them or not. I agree there is a lot to discuss with this book, and it is very multi-faceted.
Yes, I agree it is a disturbing read – lots of shades of meaning in there, lots of possibilities for interpretation. I don’t know if I can honestly say I ‘liked’ it in the conventional sense of the world, but it certainly challenged and provoked me.
It’s funny isn’t it how we might not necessarily ‘like’ a book as you say, but we might still think it is ‘good’. This is why literary criticism is sometimes so difficult!
I was definitely lured into it by the prose and read it slowly. Initially I couldn’t quite make out the disturbing episodes, we were never exposed to their origin, I assumed they were childhood flashbacks. I found it strange and awaited the revelation, however the author was never going to make it that easy for the reader, we had work to do in reading between the lines, for which reason I think we all get something different out of the experience, depending on our own imagination, fears, curiosity and inclinations.
Yes, I agree that we all have very different reactions to this book (and all books really) dependent on our own perspective. It’s created a lot of debate and discussion, which I think is great. It is certainly a ‘difficult’ book.
;Clearly not a book meant to be ‘enjoyed’ – a gritty exposé at what is going on behind closed doors. Which is what writers do.
[…] I recently finished reading The Blue Room by Hanne Orstavik, which I reviewed here. It covers a day in the life of the teenage Johanne. She wakes up to find her mother has locked her […]