Norwegian writer, Kjersti Skomsvold, centres her unusual debut novel on the character of Marthea Martinsen, an elderly lady who has always had problems engaging with others on a social level. Apart from her husband, the absently present Epsilon, Marthea avoids interacting with others - she goes to the supermarket and buys jars of jam she cannot open, but is too frightened to ask the shop assistant to loosen the lid for her; she avoids her neighbours, waiting until they have left the building before she ventures out, and if she is caught taking rubbish to the chute at night, she pretends she has such poor night vision she cannot see anyone. The one extraordinary thing she can brag about, she tells us, is that she was struck by lightning - but then she adds: "Can I really brag about that? It was the lightning that struck me, after all, and not the other way around." Her only real accomplishment, we learn, is her longevity and she reads the obituaries to gloat over the people she has outlived. Worrying that her life will end soon and she will disappear without trace, Marthea decides to bury a time capsule in her backyard, but what should she leave behind to show that she has lived?
Confidently and intelligently written 'The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Am' is the unsettling snapshot of one woman's solitary and isolated existence. Kjersti Skomsvold cleverly pulls the reader into Marthea's quirky, sad and lonely life - I understand the author wrote this book while she was confined to her bed for some time and it could be that the feelings of dislocation that the author may have felt at this time, have informed her writing and enabled her to convey this situation so well. As you may have gathered, this novel could not be described as a happy book; it is profound and desperately sad in places, but it does have its witty and humorous moments and is not totally and unremittingly depressing. That said, I could not recommend this book without reservations (my mother sent this book smartly back to me after a few chapters, saying it was too sad and too true) and although I appreciate having read it, I don't feel at the moment that I would want to read it again. It says on the back of my copy that this is "A gloomy, feel-good novel about the irreparable loneliness of being human. A tragicomedy of rare quality." I think I'd agree with that.
on 6 December 2011
Picking up this beautifully produced, modest little hardback, it's hard to appreciate at first sight just how massive the subject-matter is. Make no mistake though, this small and short novel (or novella really) is packed with a most dense and taut treatment of mortality and death told from the point of view of a surprisingly humble and even quite odd narrator.
We enter the quirky mind of Mathea Martinsen, and old widow approaching the end of her life, as she contemplates her own social isolation and loneliness and the lack of impact she feels her existence has had on the world. Her sharp and often hilarious musings on her own invisibility melt into memories of her past life and the very few people who have been part of it, mostly her husband 'Epsilon'. Many of the anecdotes of her married life include references to statistics underlining the theme of her despair at being just such an anonymous 'statistic' and having little time or opportunity to change this. As she reflects on her achievement of absolute anonymity she observes wryly that maybe she could gain notoriety by becoming the patron saint or mascot of the 'Leave No Trace' environmental society but that something tells her they aren't the kind of outfit 'likely to erect statues'.
Mathea's 'gallows' humour is sharply accurate and deliciously cruel at times but shot through with intense pathos. I literally laughed while at the same time welling up with tears, not of mirth, but of genuine sorrow. This novel arouses powerful feelings of true sadness, and fear too, at what death and old age have in store. The pathetic nature of Mathea's last, desperate but comically failed attempts at forging meaningful human connections stands as a warning to appreciate life, and the people one shares it, with while one has it. That said, and even though Mathea did lead what some (even Buddha, she notes despondently) might regard as a meaningless life, she has been struck by lightning and this is reiterated several times throughout the novel. She is special and has a unique spark all her own even if not many other people have come into contact with it.
I recommend this book highly to anyone. It is very short and it is very well-written. Though it is extremely depressing and utterly tragic on one level, it is also beautifully observed with a sparkling seam of gentle humour. Being about death and mortality makes it perhaps about the deepest and most serious subject of all but it still manages to stay light, charming, concise and very warm-hearted. This doesn't take long to read; one could easily get through it in a single sitting, but it will stay with you for a long time after you put it down.
on 9 January 2013
A Norwegian friend told me about this novella. Since the writer has had ME, an illness I have had for 30 years, and since it received a first novel prize in Norway, I was curious. (I understand she has now, fortunately, fully recovered from ME.)
It's a quirky book, makes you smile out loud, though it does get a bit repetitive, with the confusion of remembered events and imagined events, and past and present blurring. Sometimes, it can feel a bit like a collection of quirky observations and memories without much 'meat', but it is short, and eminently readable - certainly worth reading for the drollness, and the absurd observations made by the main character, Mathea Martensen, an old woman approaching death.
Writers need to be observers and being ill and housebound/bedridden is perfect for observing. I could sense that some of her observations had come from her being ill (as do my own). You become a still point while life goes on around you in a blur. Skomsvold has also written a fictionalised memoir (at least I think it is fictionalised) about her illness, Monstermenneske, which translates as Monster Human, she feels she is no longer human but disappearing into something else (so my Norwegian friend tells me, she is reading it just now). I look forward to reading the English translation when it is out. It will be interesting to see how she has written about the illness, a subject I tackled in my own 2008 novel).