Thursday, 2 September 2010

Falling for Norway: A Mystery but is it Murder?

A key reason for choosing “Stella Descending” (by Linn Ullmann) for the Norwegian leg of my journey was that I was intrigued by the premise, which centres around the repercussions of a single, tragic event. On 27 August 2000 the Stella of the title plunges nine stories off a rooftop to her death. For reasons never fully explained, she was up there with Martin, her husband. It is unclear whether she jumped, fell, or was pushed – and this forms the dramatic crux of this novel.

Stella and Martin were together for over a decade. They have a daughter, Bee who is ten - a silent, introspective child whom, we learn, Martin was never able to bond with. Stella also has another child, fifteen-year-old Amanda, though her father is long out of the picture. As well as providing emotional support to Bee, Amanda shares with the reader her view of events: which are seen through the prism of her transition from childhood to adolescence; ageing in a confusing environment where reality is cryptic and fantasy the day-to-day norm. For instance Amanda describes to Bee, in vivid detail, her rationalisation of her mother'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."

“Stella Descending” is actually narrated by several characters, including eyewitness accounts from the three passers-by who witnessed the fatal fall. There is also some commentary from special investigator Corinne Danielsen (an overweight, ageing detective who can sense a murderer through her stomach rumblings, yet - for such a potentially interesting character - she remains strangely in the background of this novel). There are also accounts and reflections by Amanda (but not Bee), Axel (an old man Stella befriended in a hospital she worked at), and even Stella herself. In addition there is a transcript of a video recording Martin and Stella made on the day of her death (ostensibly to record their possessions for insurance purposes, although the transcripts serve more to provide a voyeuristic view of the increasing disconnection in their relationship: a rather sad documentation of inevitable dissolution).

Of all of the above narrators, a major figure 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."

Despite an apparent lack of common ground, 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 hospitalised. 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."

All of these accounts focus on the fall and its aftermath (especially the day of Stella's funeral), but include reminiscences going back years. Some are only related second-hand - it is Corinne who recounts much of what Martin has to say, for example - and events and occurrences (including the fall itself) are often seen through different eyes. On a thematic note, Axel is fascinated by Ferris wheels, and it is like one of these that the story keeps returning to the same places.

The novel presents an interesting mix of voices: old Axel, who has also become an important anchor for Amanda, suspicious Corinne, calmly nostalgic Stella. Much doesn't seem particularly significant at first - or even almost too trivial to bother with - but it's a fine web Ullmann spins, and ultimately a coherent picture of the relationships between these characters emerges. However, this is a novel of separation more than connection: of unbridgeable gaps, the inability to truly communicate and to hold fast to each other - making for a novel that is both affecting and yet also profoundly melancholy.

“Stella Descending” doesn't come to a neat, clean murder-mystery conclusion - it's nowhere near that simple: although it does read like a mystery of sorts (and it is interesting to note how many of the books on the Scandinavian leg of my journey owe something to the detective genre). On balance, this has been an ideal, and enjoyable, representation for my journey to Norway.

As an aside, author Linn Ullmann is the daughter of acclaimed Norwegian actress, Liv Ullmann, and the equally esteemed Swedish director, Ingmar Bergman. Hard acts to follow, but Ullmann acquits herself well here, in what was her second novel.

From Norway, my next stop is a rather unconventional one - the destination being Sápmi: a cultural region in the Arctic circle traditionally inhabited by the Sámi people. Sápmi is located in Northern Europe and stretches over four countries: Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. In researching my journey, I felt that this region had enough autonomy and independent culture to warrant an entry in its own right. Such decisions are always going to be subjective, but this is one I stand by.

And I am pleased that I have, as it has brought me to a sparse, yet affecting, book called “Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name” by Vendela Vida published in 2007 – of which more later.

I have to say that travel from these two destinations is less of a smooth transition! From Oslo I take a cheap flight into Finland (a snip online via for a one-way trip to Helsinki Vantaa airport for €16.80). However, from there travel is less direct to this remote region: there is no direct route to my ultimate destination of Inari; so I then need to embark upon a 12-hour train ride to Rovanemi (which is followed by a bus to Ivalo, and then another bus to Inari:- a total of 21 hours from Helsinki).

At least on the initial train journey I am able to book a comfortable 2nd class sleeper carriage (with three beds – the other two mercifully empty) and nice clean blankets. I shall quote Vendela Vida for a description of this first leg of the journey:

“As the train left the station, I pressed my forehead to the cold window. We started out slow, passing houses the colour of Viking ships in children’s books – utterly confident blues, reds, yellows. Ladders led to the rooftops, to ease the shovelling off of snow…the farther north we travelled, the darker it grew. By three o’clock, it was already night”.

My train arrives at Rovenemi after midnight, and there is a long wait until the double-decker bus arrives at 6am. After one more change of buses I arrive in snowbound Inari at nine in the morning – although it is hard to tell it is morning here as the sun never seems to rise, the only indication of daylight being a dark blue tinge to the sky above…

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