Breath-taking in its emotional impact, insightful in its depiction of the main character and themes, and completely honest, this remarkable book left me weeping in places, silently begging the main character not to make some of the choices that I knew she would inevitably make. Eva, an ordinary, elderly woman with a now-silent husband, tells her own story, with all the hesitations, flashbacks, regrets, and questions which are tormenting her now and which have confounded her husband. In creating Eva, Norwegian author Merethe Lindstrom has brought to life a vividly depicted character filled with flaws, prone to second-guessing, and sometimes overcome with regret for past mistakes, and she does this without any hints of authorial manipulation in Eva’s story, which feels as if it is emerging of its own will from Eva’s depths.
Eva, the mother of three daughters by her husband Simon, is also the mother of a son, whom she gave up for adoption when she was an unmarried teenager, and she often wonders about his fate. Eva has few friends, shunning intimacy, even with her own children, and though she eventually became a teacher of language and literature, she was constantly aware of being superfluous to the school’s success. Now retired, she admits that “I do not know if I miss the work, but I wish to be part of something, I always have the feeling of being left out.” As Eva introduces Simon, she notes that he started to become silent two years ago, and she is now forgetting the sound of his voice. He has begun to wander outside alone, and though she takes him to a daycare center two days a week, her daughters feel that he now needs full-time care.
The novel develops through Eva’s memories as they swirl in an order which feels random but which the author has subtly planned for dramatic effect. Always, there are questions about what happens next. Simon’s life in central Europe during World War II and its aftermath; their three-year relationship with Mariya, their housekeeper, who became Eva’s intimate friend; the young intruder who entered their house years ago and frightened Eva and her pre-school children; Simon’s need for family; and Eva’s attempts to assuage the guilt she feels about secrets in her own life, all appear and reappear through memories which increase the reader’s knowledge.
Much of the novel feels like a musical canon, with motifs appearing, being superseded by other motifs, then reappearing, almost like a round. Winter, the imagery of the church, a mailbox bringing letters with news of past and present, Eva’s commitment to decorating a grave of a stranger, and a large snail shell which she finds in one of her closets also raise questions about life and death and memories and home, and add to the abundant symbolism. Though this is one of the most memorable books I have read in years, it will not appeal to everyone. It is a character-based novel, with little plot, and those expecting a Nordic noir mystery, a straightforward narrative, a love story, and/or a story about people who are younger than “elderly” may be disappointed. For those who have dealt intimately with elderly family members with memory problems, or those who are senior citizens themselves, however, this is an honest, powerful, and never-to-be-forgotten novel which touches the soul.