A novel about growing up, growing older and trying to find some accommodation with the past.
Oslo, Norway, resident Ullmann (Grace, 2005, etc.) creates a remote and craggy setting and inhabits it with Isak Lövenstad, an equally remote and craggy personality. Lövenstad is a prominent gynecologist with three daughters, each by a different mother. As his daughters were growing up, they spent time with him at his summer house on the fairly remote—but now increasingly touristy—Baltic island of Hammersö. In 2005 his eldest daughter, Erika, now 39, is going to visit her father on a bitterly cold and blustery December day, and she’s persuaded Laura and Molly, her two half-sisters, to join her. For 25 years all three have been estranged from their father. While the first part of the narrative focuses on Erika’s circuitous journey to the island and on her rocky domestic relationships, it becomes increasingly obsessed with flashbacks to the girls’ summers on the island—part idyll, part nightmare. (Perhaps this fragmentation of time shouldn’t be so surprising considering the author is the daughter of Ingmar Bergman, known for the chronological fluidity of his films.) We learn in particular of a strange boy named Ragnar, in some ways a double of Erika—born on the same day, almost at the same hour—but physically deformed, in contrast to Erika, the most beautiful of the three sisters. Still, Erika feels unaccountably attracted to Ragnar, to his strangeness and to his obvious alienation from society. When they’re both 14, they meet for trysts at his out-of-the-way hut deep in the woods. Eventually, however, Erika, along with her sisters and with some friends she wants to impress, winds up betraying Ragnar in a horrifying way, and at a deep level she feels her father has abetted this betrayal. Her journey back to Hammersö is an attempt to reconstruct, and perhaps atone for, her past.
A novel of stark beauty that leaves moral issues tantalizingly open.