I cannot get out. Something must have happened to the lock.
That’s the first line of Hanne Ørstavik’s novel The Blue Room. Are you feeling claustrophobic yet? If I tell you that the entire novel takes place with the protagonist locked in the same small bedroom, you may feel yourself starting to hyperventilate.
Don’t worry, though. Johanne may be locked in her bedroom, but as readers we are free to roam. As Johanne sits in the room alone, her mind begins to wander, taking us back through the set of circumstances that led to her confinement.
We learn about her strange, enmeshed relationship with her mother, about her devoutly religious upbringing, her feelings of guilt, her erotic and sometimes violent sexual fantasies, and her budding relationship with Ivar, a man she met at the university cafeteria, and with whom she was planning to run away to America this very morning, before she became locked in her bedroom.
It’s the relationship with the mother that’s at the heart of this book, and that makes it so hard to put down. The ambiguity of it is beautifully drawn, with Johanne loving her mother and being trapped by her at the same time.
From the beginning, the normal mother-daughter relationship is inverted, as Johanne tells her mother to eat her greens, and the mother responds that she’s too strict, and takes out a pack of cigarettes. The mother suddenly lets her plate fall, and Johanne clears up all the bits of food from the floor, not even thinking to complain. Instead she thinks about how her mother has “been through so much,” and thinks “they should be nicer to her at work, so she has some energy left when she comes home.” As she throws away the wasted food and goes to clean the bathroom, she thinks: “We belong together like two clasped hands.”
The pattern continues throughout the book, with Johanne struggling to please her erratic, emotionally distant and sometimes manipulative mother, never seeming to see that there’s anything abnormal in the whole thing. It’s a really clever character study. The relationship with Ivar and the trip to America come to seem like Johanne’s only chance of escaping and living her own life, away from the unfair expectations and the constant pressure that make her hate and condemn herself.
Johanne’s first-person narration allows a feeling of oddness to pervade the whole book, as she describes strange and unsettling behaviour as if it’s normal. It’s not only her mother’s behaviour that’s strange, either. Johanne does things like going to a party and standing there with her eyes closed until Ivar arrives—and even keeping her eyes closed while he’s talking to her, perhaps to preserve the fantasy in her head from collision with reality.
All of this builds up to make The Blue Room a strangely beautiful book. It creates a subtly distorted world, in which the usual rules of human interaction are altered just enough to create a feeling of unease, but not so much as to make it unbelievable. We’re on the uncertain borders between normal and abnormal, reality and fantasy, and we’re never quite sure how much faith to place in Johanne’s recollections. It’s a fascinating world to inhabit for a while, and was a great way to get my first taste of Norwegian literature.
Here’s a little taste of Johanne’s world. The context is that she took her mother out to a movie, and the mother didn’t like the film, so started screaming at Johanne for being wicked and deceitful, deliberately choosing a film she’d hate.
I do try to be nice, Mum. But maybe I hadn’t been. Maybe I couldn’t see myself from the outside. Maybe I was terrible. A despicable lump of nothing, wicked and manipulative. It was calculating of me to use her the way I did, living off her. My plan, my entire life was based on endless scheming, I’d even calculated on going to heaven when I died. You’re sly and exploitative, Johanne. She’s right, I thought, you’re not nice. I followed her a few steps and then stopped.