The Blue RoomHanne Ørstavik
A novel about a mother-daughter relationship that will send a chill down your spine.
Johanne is a young woman in her twenties who lives with her mother. When she falls in love with Ivar, she finally feels ready to leave home. The couple plan a trip to America. But the morning of her departure, Johanne wakes up to find the door locked. Can she overcome her fears? Will she shout for help? Will she climb out of her fourth floor window?
A GUARDIAN PAPERBACK OF THE YEAR 2014
Why Peirene chose to publish this book:
Everyone who has read Fifty Shades of Grey should read this book. Why? The Blue Room holds up a mirror to a part of the female psyche that yearns for submission. The story shows how erotic fantasies are formed by the relationship with our parents. It then delves further to analyse the struggle of women to separate from their mothers – a struggle that is rarely addressed in either literature or society.
Written by Hanne Ørstavik.
Translated from the Norwegian by Deborah Dawkin.
Coming of Age series
176pp, paperback with flaps, £12
With the publication of her first novel in 1994, Hanne Ørstavik, born in 1969, embarked on a career that has made her one of the most admired authors in contemporary Norwegian literature. Her literary breakthrough came three years later with the publication of Love (Kjærlighet), which in 2006 was voted the sixth best Norwegian book of the last twenty-five years. Since then the author has written several acclaimed novels and has received a number of literary prizes, including the Dobloug Prize, for her entire literary output, and the Brage Prize, Norway’s most prestigious literary award. Ørstavik’s novels have been translated into eighteen languages but never, until now, into English.
Deborah Dawkin trained as an actress, and worked in theater for ten years. She has written creatively and dramatized works, including the poetry of the Norwegian Inger Hagerup. Other translations include Ugly Bugly and Fatso, both by Lars Ramslie and To Music by Ketil Bjørnstad, which was nominated for the Independant Foreign Fiction Prize. She has also worked with Erik Skuggevik on many translations from Norwegian, including Ingar Sletten Kolloen’s biography of Knut Hamsun. They are currently translating eight plays by Ibsen for the new Penguin edition. Deborah has an MA in Social and Cultural History and is working on a PhD on the translator, Michael Meyer.
‘The Blue Room is a highly unusual, coolly daring psychological thriller that explores emotional pain and indifference with an unsettling detachment.’ Eileen Battersby, The Irish Times
‘A work of chilling, masterly control.’ Laura Profumo, Times Literary Supplement
‘The Blue Room is a corker, and has been written by someone with real literary and psychological intelligence.’ Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian
‘Ørstavik treats the everyday and existential with intensity.’ Max Liu, The Independent
‘Psychologically astute and deftly translated… The Blue Room is a brilliant examination of a woman struggling to own her sexuality, to break free from the guilt and forge her own identity.’ Lucy Popescu, The Tablet
I cannot get out. Something must have happened to
the lock. I’ll have to wait until Mum comes home from
work to help me. Everything was totally normal when I
went to bed last night. It was late and I dropped straight
off to sleep. This morning I was woken up by the sound
of the front door. I looked at the clock. It was quarter
past six. I assumed Mum had got up early and had just
gone to fetch the paper, but then I heard nothing more.
I’m standing by the window, looking up at the sky. It’s
so quiet here in my room, it feels padded, like a cocoon.
My armpits are damp; occasionally a drop of moisture
trickles down. My hands are cold and dry. The sky is clear,
but it’s windy, and now a dark cloud is approaching. A
moment ago a plane came into view, like a tiny dart, its
exhaust as straight as an arrow. I stood here and watched
it disappear. I lay in for a while, smiling to myself under the warmth of the duvet. But I knew I wouldn’t go back to sleep. I was too excited. I was looking forward to my coffee and to all that was going to happen. I climbed down from my loft bed and went over to the door. But it was shut. It took some time before I realized I wouldn’t get it open. I pulled at the handle, as hard as I could without it coming off, since it’s old and broken. And then it struck me: I was never going to get out on my own, someone was going to have to help me. I started shouting. I banged on the wall of the lounge, where Mum sleeps, and then on the kitchen wall. We share the third wall with the nextdoor apartment. I’ve no idea who lives there. The wall is thick and I’ve never heard a sound from behind it. I didn’t try that one. The fourth has a window in it, but I’m naked. I’d put the clothes I wore yesterday into the washing machine in the bathroom and my wardrobe is out in the hall. I wrapped a sheet round me, but then I stopped myself: it seems daft to go screaming from the fourth floor into a backyard in Frogner. I’ve sent up a prayer that everything will be all right. I’ve decided to leave it to God, to put my fate in his hands. White empty spaces interrupt my thoughts when I try to think logically and then I can’t remember what I was thinking. I must try to breathe from my stomach, try to relax and not tense my muscles. I suddenly remember some exercises from an evening class in bioenergetic training. Only postgraduate students were supposed to attend the class really, but I managed to sneak in. I take my duvet, spread it on the floor and lie on my back. Just imagine if I hadn’t studied psychology and didn’t have an insight into extreme reactions. I try to push the air up and down in my stomach. I close my eyes so I don’t have to see my body. The trick is to relax so much that the small of your back touches the floor, but I find that very difficult. I’m useless at concentrating on physical things. My brain finds it dull and then my thoughts start wandering. It’s nearly eight o’clock now. I see Ivar standing next to the open window of his apartment, smoking a cigarette in the fresh morning air. He’s wearing his red and black Icelandic sweater, the one that’s frayed at the wrists. I think about his hands, his mouth round his cigarette, his lips. And then he smiles, a calm, warm, happy smile that touches my whole being. He’ll be leaving soon. He’ll walk down the stairs and out through the gates, turn right into the street. It will be fine, I think to myself, I will get out of here in time. And yet, it’s as if I already know it’s over. I must let it go, let go of the hope and the dreams, let them float away like twigs in a stream. Rucksack, guitar case, his feet as he steps onto the Airport Express. He was supposed to turn as he got onto the train, and I was supposed to be standing there, on the platform, carrying my case, out of breath and happy. I was supposed to arrive just in time. I still can. If only I get out now. Then I’ll run with my bag down to the station. And there I’ll be. He’ll look at me with that same expression in his eyes as he had on that first day: Hi there! At the back entrance of the Social Sciences block, where the bikes are kept. I remember how he startled me, how I stopped in my tracks. He was just the new boy working in the canteen back then. He looked at me, and it felt as though he’d poked me in the stomach with a sharp stick. He was wearing faded jeans and a short white jacket; he held his left arm tightly across his chest and tucked under his right armpit as he smoked, one knee bent, a foot wedged up against the red-brick wall. His voice was deeper than I’d expected. Not that I’d ever thought about his voice before. Or had I? I’d seen him behind the counter, but he was rarely serving at the tills; he did other things– buttered baguettes, chopped tomatoes – standing in the background. It all seems so long ago now. Come with me, he said, and you can borrow a towel. He dropped his cigarette butt into the red bucket, exhaled from the corner of his mouth and held the door open for me. He smiled again and walked towards the canteen, leaving me standing in the entrance hall next to the information desk. I watched him disappear through the swing doors where they take the dirty dishes on trolleys. My glasses were covered with rain. I took them off, thinking I should find some tissue to dry them with. My clothes were drenched. I was sweating, and my skirt was dripping and clinging to my legs. Everything had gone wrong. I’d had to stay at home and study because Mum couldn’t get the time off work, so I had to be there to let the plumber in. And then he’d turned up late so I lost a lot of time. I’d cycled here as fast as I could, but when I finally arrived and wanted to lock up my bike, I realized I’d lost the chain. I knew I’d put it under the clip – I always keep it clamped on the rear rack, I do it automatically. It must have fallen off. There had been a light drizzle as I set off from home; by the time I arrived it was pelting down. In just three minutes the lecture would start. I couldn’t leave my bike without locking it: I couldn’t afford to lose it, and I wouldn’t be able to concentrate on the lecture if I was worrying about my bike being stolen. Everything was going wrong. But I had to cycle back and look. As I pedalled down Blindernveien and past Marienlyst School I started to cry. The lock was lying next to the Portakabins outside the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation building, a blue-plastic-covered chain. I got off and picked it up, hung it over the handlebar, turned and pushed my bike all the way back – uphill – crying the whole way. I had to lock it in a different place from usual. As I stood there in the entrance hall, I was still crying – or the tears were flowing at least. It must be physiological, I thought, as if I had a plastic bag in my chest filled with water. But my face was so wet with rain, I don’t think he noticed the tears. I felt a stabbing pain in my left eyebrow. I was going to be late for my lecture. At the same time, I wanted to follow the canteen man, to be wherever he was. Yes, that was what I wanted. That was the truth. Already then. I walked towards the glass partition that marks the start of the canteen. Perhaps I should go and look for him, tell him I had to go. Or perhaps he’d forgotten me, since it was taking so long. Then again, he might be standing in there laughing at me. He reappeared through the swing doors and walked calmly towards me, holding a clean white kitchen towel, neatly folded, in his outstretched hand. Here, he said. I smiled and thanked him, and he asked if I wanted a coffee. I ought to go to my lecture. There’d still be quarter of an hour left. I glanced at my watch. Yes, at least that. I looked at him. My whole forehead was throbbing. Come back with the towel later then. Yes, I said, thanks. He smiled, broadly, as though amused by something. He seemed almost too happy, I wasn’t sure I could quite trust his smile. I went down the wide spiral staircase to the toilets, taking three steps at a time. Luckily nobody was there. I stood in front of the big mirror and had to smile. I could see why he’d laughed. My red hair was sticking out in a clump on either side of my face, my gold hairclip had slipped at an angle, making my hair bulge on top, and my mascara had left dark tracks under my eyes. I wiped my face with the towel energetically, blew my nose, dried my eyes – I had finally stopped crying – polished my glasses, ran back up the stairs and hurried to Auditorium 7. I opened the door carefully, sat at the very back and took a notepad out of my bag. The top corners were damp. I looked down on the lecturer. He seemed so small, whizzing about, drawing jagged lines on the board next to the overhead projector. There was something aggressive about him: no doubt he was irritated by people coming in late, causing a disturbance – he was in the middle of explaining cognitive dissonance and attribution theory. I stayed in the auditorium during the break to copy my neighbour’s notes. Kind of her to let me; more than 500 of us will compete for thirty-seven places, so she didn’t have to, but she offered. You can see the competitiveness among some of the boys. The resolute gaze, the arm covering their notes. As I wrote, it all started to make sense, travelling through my hand and into my body, and the calm concentration, the logical lines, put me in a state of suspension. And yet that face. Taking form and then evaporating. Taking form and disappearing. Like a pulse – the canteen man, his smile, his eyes – an image lodged in my bloodstream so that each time it pumped past my eyes, it became visible again. I smiled. Stop it, Johanne. I shook my head to make it go away. I’d moved down to the third row, where I usually sit, in front of the lecturer. I couldn’t stop smiling. It was almost a need. Although I’m not sure I knew where this smile was coming from yet. After the break the auditorium began to fill up again, footsteps and voices in the air like dust settling all around. Resuming its place, like sunshine and warmth after a storm. The lecture could begin once more, like a symphony. I must have felt finely tuned, infinitely joyous and light. I remember humming a song in my head: Every day thy riches grow, For Jesus Christ has made it so, Though doubt and sin thy life may fill, A place in heaven awaits thee still.
For Reading Groups
Our Reading Guide for The Blue Room, with much food for thought. Enjoy the discussion:
1 The events of this novel take place in a single room. What effect does this isolation have on Johanne and the reader?
2 How much of Johanne’s imprisonment do you think is forced upon her by her mother, and how much is she being held back by her own internal fears?
3 Are you able to sympathise with the mother and her motivations? What do you think of her harsh opinion of Ivar?
4 Johanne regularly has visions of imagined erotic fantasies. How does she try to reconcile this with her feelings about God?
5 Until she meets Ivar, Johanne never thinks about leaving. Could she have achieved this desire for independence without him? Is it really independence, if she needs him to obtain it?
6 Compare Johanne’s relationship with her mother to what we know of the mother’s relationship with her own mother (Johanne’s grandma). Are there any similarities?
7 Is it important that this parental relationship is between two women? Could the events of this book have ever occurred if Johanne had been a son?
8 Do you believe in the truth of Johanne and Ivar’s relationship, despite how quickly it evolves? Do you think that Ivar perceives his relationship with Johanne in quite the same way as it is portrayed to the reader?
9 What does America mean to Ivar and Johanne, separately and together?
10 Imagine if Johanne were seventeen, instead of in her twenties. Would her mother have a right then to do what she did? At what point does it become inappropriate for a mother to exert control over the life of her child?
This project has been funded with support from the European Commission. This publication reflects the views of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.
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