Whilst summering with her father and her two half-sisters on the Baltic isle of Hammarso, Erica forms a friendship with oddball, Ragnar. When Erica reaches her teens and is worried about what her peers may think, she dumps Ragnar, with tragic consequences for everyone.
Twenty-five years later, returning to visit their elderly father, the three women confront an old family secret whilst remembering the last summer of their childhood.
The fragility of human relationships is a strong theme running through this novel. The women try to recover some stability back into their lives by facing up to the events that took place during that last visit to Hammarso.
This book holds a wonderful story of childhood memories and unspoken family secrets.
Linn Ullmann’s fourth novel, translated from the Norwegian by Sarah Death, tells the story of three stepsisters of the respected gynaecologist Isak Lovenstad, a pioneer of ultrasound in pregnancy, - Erika, Laura and Molly - who are planning to meet him for the first time in 25 years.
Following the death of his wife Rosa, Isak lives alone on the isolated Swedish island of Hammarsö in the Baltic Sea and has told his daughters that, at 84, he is contemplating suicide. In the summer tourists to the island outnumber locals with many coming for the annual Pageant of art and life.
Appreciation of this elegiac novel is heightened since author is daughter of the actress Liv Ullmann and Ingmar Bergman, the film director, who had eight older children by five different women. Ullmann being the only mother that he did not marry. For much of his life Bergman lived on the small island of Fårö and, in 1967 he, Liv and Linn Ullmann, lived together in his house at Hammars.
Whilst the daughters are to the fore, through the memories of Erika as she travels back to meet her sisters on the island through bitter winter weather, it is Isak who overshadows the story and his relationship to Lear is evident. Whilst Shakespeare’s King was blind, Isak’s use of ultrasound enables him to see inside women [‘he saw them on a screen. A throbbing fetal (sic) heart. The outline of a brain, looking like a shriveled date. The shadow of two babies instead of one in the mother’s womb.’]
Isak remains shadowy, being seen as an all-powerful radiant God-figure [‘Laura, who knew their father best, used to say Isak could hear everything. He could hear what Laura and Erika were saying to each other, even if they were a long way off. He could even hear what they were thinking. Words and thoughts could be picked up and registered as dots and lines on a screen to make a picture.’] The sisters’ lives link periphally, family ties being loose, with their emotional inheritance resulting in each unable to maintain family relationships.
The key year is 1979, one of the hottest summers ever, when Erika is an impressionable teenager and Molly is just five. Erika, part of a group of teenagers in thrall to the beautiful but cruel Marion, finds herself torn between her feelings for Ragnar, whose horn-shaped facial birthmark makes him a figure of ridicule for Marion and her friends, and her desperate need to be part of the group. Erika is dominated emotionally and sexually by Marion and betrays Ragnar’s friendship and devotion. Isak remains unaware and uninterested in the effect that he might have on his daughters, making it harder to understand just why they want to see him again.
We are led to believe that all the main characters have been scarred by the events of that summer, and that Isak shoulders much of the responsibility. The closing pages of the book might initially feel disappointing since they offer little in the way of resolution; however, given the long and meticulous building of the narrative it is ultimately more satisfying that a complete tying up of loose ends. The reader, like the sisters, is left travelling.
This book slowly opens up to reveal a great understanding of childbirth and childhood, the frustrations of ageing and the evocative barrenness of the island. It is unlikely to satisfy an impatient reader but may interest lovers of the tick.