First published in Norway in 1997 and now translated into English for the first time, this novella explores the complicated bond between a mother and her son who, on the eve of his ninth birthday, goes out selling lottery tickets for his sports club while she has her own adventures elsewhere.
Love, a trim and electrifying novel ... is undergirded by the present tense and made incandescent by Orstavik’s seemingly effortless omniscient perspective, sometimes switching between Jon’s mind and Vibeke’s from sentence to sentence ... Orstavik’s mastery of perspective and clean, crackling sentences prevent sentimentality or sensationalism from trailing this story of a woman and her accidentally untended child ... The primeval darkness of the forest looms, biting as the cold that seems a character throughout this excellent novel of near misses.
It is the radical formal structure of the book — the rapid point of view shifts from one paragraph to the next — that truly dials into something profound about love, about how limited it can be. As if to show the indissoluble bond between Vibeke and [Jon], the way in which they are never truly apart, in spite of the mother’s distance from her son, the author alternates between their points of view, occasionally even within the same paragraph. There is a slice of viewpoint here, a sliver of the other viewpoint there ... in Love, the closeness of the perspectives, the cramming of them together, as if the mother and son are one person, and yet clearly not, feels less about narrative, and more about the limitations of love. We think we know another person, we feel settled in another person, and yet, perhaps every other consciousness is entirely a mystery. That’s the power of this particular book. The tiny emotional and atmospheric shifts are often barely perceptible, and yet they add up to much more. The total transparency of the prose while engaged in this formal structure leaves a lot of room for the reader’s own prejudices and biases to surface. We don’t know for sure anything of what the author intended us to feel about Vibeke; there is not a single judgmental comment. However, it is plain that the novella is contesting any idealization of motherhood ... Despite its brevity, Love, effectively rendered into English by Martin Aitken, demands and deserves total concentration.
[T]here is an inescapable and escalating sense of anxiety as the story unfolds, mostly accomplished through the subtle juxtaposition of images that bring a sense of menace to what should be an ordinary afternoon and evening: a leather dog collar hanging from a chain on a wall, photographs of someone being tortured, a piece of fruit wriggling with maggots ... One of the most interesting elements of the novella, and an ingredient in its final, devastating outcome, is the distance between Vibeke and Jon, who revolve around each other so carefully but with very little actual interaction. In the scenes in which they are together, Jon orbits his mother, watching her, aware of her movements, giving the reader his interpretation of her ... This has the curious effect of infusing a child’s scene with an adult-like sensuality or pushing a note of Jon’s innocence up against a moment of Vibeke’s knowing awareness. It’s destabilizing and keeps the reader alert and wary. Exploited this way, architecturally, this distance can only signal catastrophe.