(Reviewed by Bill Robinson SEP 7, 2003)
Linn Ullmann's new novel is a collection of haunting, confessional soliloquies, strung together by a single calamitous event. However, several of the narratives, like jazz solos, improvise and expand on circumstance to explore depths of personal isolation and loneliness.
It is a sunny evening in Oslo. For reasons unclear, a couple, a man and a woman, are balanced on the roof of a nine-story apartment building, playing a kind of balancing game, dancing to an unheard melody.
At one point, the couple appear to embrace. It is difficult for the three eyewitnesses to tell. However, what is certain is that suddenly the woman seems to lose her balance. And, she falls. Did her companion reach to save her? Or, as is suspected later by suspicious friends and a police investigator, did he provide a fatal push? This is the conundrum that will drive the narrative as it unfolds and reveals questions, if not answers.
Stella falls. Martin, her companion of 10 years and the father of one of her two children, remains alone on the rooftop. Was it his push that sent Stella descending? Did he reach to grab her as she balanced precipitously? Or, like Stella, was he simply the co-victim of her misstep over which, like much in life, he and she had no control?
With this event firmly set in place, Ullmann proceeds to introduce her speakers.
There are Stella's two young daughters: the painfully aware Amanda, Stella's from an early, short-lived encounter, and Bee, little, enigmatic, large-eyed, fathered by Martin. Amanda's role is to care for and comfort Bee, who seems embraced by silent sadness. Amanda also shares with the reader her transition from childhood to adolescence, aging in a confusing environment where reality is cryptic and fantasy the day-to-day norm.
Amanda describes in vivid detail Stella's descent:
"We say that Mama is falling little by little, day by day, kind of in bits: first a finger, then an eye, and then a knee, and then a foot, then a toe, and then another toe." Amanda says. "I tell Bee that Mama falls and falls and never hits the ground." On her way down, Amanda explains, Stella meets birds flying south, a squirrel fallen from a tree, a cod fished from water. "Maybe Mama will meet Granny, too, I say; God must have kicked Granny out of heaven a long time ago, she was so grumpy and tight lipped."
So, goes the often Magritte-like surrealism that permeates Ullmann's narrative.
Other characters appear with their stories.
Corinne is the special investigator with the Violent Crimes division of the Oslo police department. In her former life, she was a ventriloquist and puppetmaker. "My piece de resistance was a number featuring fifty puppets, a very fair representative of the entire cast of La Boheme." (Corinne is first cousin to female detective Mike Hoolihan in Martin Amis's Night Train. Both share the same variety of melancholy and world-weary cynicism.)
What makes Corinne appropriate for her job is her special gift. She gets "a slight twinge in my stomach whenever I come face-to-face with a killer." Corinne feels that twinge of verdict on first encountering Martin. The two spend long and revealing evenings together reviewing the "accident" and Martin's tumultuous relationship with Stella.
In one of Corinne and Martin's inquisitional dialogues, Corinne reveals that Stella was pregnant at the time of her death "My friend Karina down at pathology found a yellowish mass less than a centimeter long in her womb, an embryo," Did you know she was pregnant? Corinne asks. No. Stella was on the pill, Martin replies. Did you want more children? Corinne interrogates. Martin's response is a simple, perhaps incriminating, no.
A major figure in the novel is the aged curmudgeon Axel who has lived for thirty years in his "temporary" apartment in a nondescript section of Oslo. "I am not usually in harmony with my surroundings," Axel explains. "In fact, I detest my surroundings, and my surroundings detest me."
Axel and Stella become close friends. Axel is in love or what passes for him as such. Stella senses a sympathetic ear. They meet when Axel is hospitalized. Stella is his nurse. Their friendship coincides with the beginning of Stella's relationship with Martin, so Axel provides a unique perspective. "Stella was too good for him," Axel says, describing Martin. "In my view he is a conceited ass he is a brute, but he did not kill her. Such things do, after all, take a courage of sorts."
When the beautiful and innocent Stella and the handsome and insensitive Martin first meet Stella is in her mid-twenties, Martin is somewhat older. What they initially have in common is a green sofa. Stella purchases this from an exclusive furniture store in Oslo. It is Martin's job to deliver it. When the sofas arrives and is hoisted up to Stella's ninth floor apartment, Martin is sitting on it comfortably and if this was the obvious place to be. "I asked him to leave," Stella says, "but he wouldn't. He refused. And then well, then he moved in."
After ten years together, things are shaky for Stella and Martin. "The nights were awful. Awful We never slept." Martin confesses to Corinne. Shortly before the fall, Martin makes videotapes of he and Stella cataloging the contents of their apartment, this for an insurance broker. The transcripts provide a voyeuristic view of increasing disconnection, documentation of inevitable dissolution.
Author Linn Ullmann is the daughter of acclaimed Norwegian actress, Liv Ullmann, and the equally esteemed Swedish director, Ingmar Bergman. These are hard acts to follow. However, Ullmann, the author, proved that she had significant talent of her own with her first novel, Before You Sleep, published in 1999. Called "inventive and wise, funny and disquieting," the book was critically acclaimed in Europe. Stella Descending is no less an outstanding performance.
Ullmann's work is serious, in the tradition of Scandinavian literature. However, it might be categorized as "Scandinavian lite." It blends bleakness with humor, despair with hope. Ullmann's tales are engaging fables of loneliness and fables of forever falling, as one character puts it, "halfway between heaven and earth."
This novel was translated by Barbara Haveland who has also translated some novels by Peter Hoeg.
- Amazon readers rating: from 2 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Stella Descending at MostlyFiction.com
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
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- MetroActive review of Before You Sleep
- The New York Times review of Before You Sleep
- The Oregonian review of Before You Sleep
- Elle review of Stella Descending
- BookReporter.com review of Stella Descending
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About the Author:
Linn Ullman is a graduate of New York University, where she studied English literature and began work on a Ph.D. She returned to Oslo in 1990 to pursue a career in journalism. She had established herself as a prominent literary critic when her first novel, Before You Sleep, was published in 1998 and became a critically acclaimed best-seller throughout Europe. She writes a column for Norways leading morning newspaper and lives in Oslo with her husband, son, two stepchildren, and a dog.