My next stop on this year’s International Booker journey is Norway, where we meet Johanna. She’s estranged from her family, having left behind them and their plans for her legal career, to make a life as an artist in the US. They didn’t invite her to her father’s funeral, and she didn’t think of going. Now on the verge of sixty, Johanna has returned to Oslo after almost thirty years, for a retrospective of her work.
Johanna’s thoughts frequently turn to her remaining family: her mother and her sister Ruth. She’s tried calling them, with no answer. Johanna doesn’t even know if her mother is alive, and speculates intensely over what life might be like for her now, what she might be thinking:
Perhaps Mum gets upset merely on hearing my name and so everyone around her avoids saying it. Perhaps Mum feels uneasy every time she hears the name even if it’s just some random Johanna, a skier or a newsreader, the name is mentioned and Mum shudders, Mum is lucky that not many people are called Johanna. Perhaps Mum has succeeded in suppressing unpleasant thoughts about me in her everyday life – she has years of practice – that but then it pops up in a random interviewee on the television whose name is Johanna…translation from norwegian by Charlotte barslund
That repetition, the rhythm of the translation, all underline Johanna’s level of preoccupation. She has found out her mother’s address, and towards the start of the novel I wanted to say to her: just go there and make contact – whatever has happened, it’s surely better to face it than stay in this cycle of speculation.
Well, that was before Johanna started lurking in her car outside her mother’s home. She finds out that her mother is indeed alive, but doesn’t stop wondering about her. Then, without ever changing the essential tone of the narration, Hjorth transforms our perception of Johanna from a somewhat sympathetic character to one who really isn’t. We start to see why Johanna’s family might want nothing to do with her.
As a character study, I found Is Mother Dead powerful stuff. It’s also an examination of familial relations at a high pitch. Hjorth’s novel has set the standard for the rest of the International Booker longlist, as far as I’m concerned.
Book published by Verso Books.
Click here to read my other posts on the 2023 International Booker Prize.