Whether similar occurrences are linked or are instead “apparently meaningful coalescences that have no causal connection” is the question at the heart of this lavishly imagined, unfailingly seductive second novel from the virtuoso Norwegian author (Psalm at Journey’s End, 1996).
The figure that threads through the four component stories here—as their presiding, inquiring spirit—is that of Wilhelm Bolt, a wealthy Norwegian scientist and engineer first encountered as he lies in his coffin awaiting burial, and reflecting on his long, eventful—and, as we’ll eventually learn, frustrated and compensatory—life. This magical-realist touch is echoed repeatedly, as Hansen creates a fascinating structure in which brief disclosures about his characters’ interrelationships and histories are amplified by later extended flashbacks. Thus, the first “tale” reveals the reclusive Bolt’s initially reluctant mentoring of his runaway grandniece Lea, the scientific (primarily botanical) researches that occupy and energize him, and the theory of “serialization” (i.e., of the un-connectedness of what seems connected) he draws from his experiences and readings. Of the succeeding tales, which mirror and elucidate Bolt’s own questing nature and his symbiotic relationship with his deferential manservant Andersen, one “travels” to an island off the Swedish coast, in 1898, and the tense intimacy between a lighthouse keeper’s family and a “half-mute” assistant once possessed of an angelic singing voice. Another (the longest, and best) is set in Renaissance Italy and concerns an aristocratic art patron stricken with a disfiguring disease and his faithful servant, a painting of a Madonna credited with miraculous healing powers, and conflicting artistic theories of how reality may be captured—and honored. A final tale solves the remaining mysteries surrounding Wilhelm Bolt, and returns the story to its beginnings, at the old man’s funeral.
Favorably, rightly compared with Isak Dinesen’s classic “gothic tales,” and a great critical success in Europe: a rich, replete demonstration of the art of storytelling and the universality of human loving and striving.