An American woman wakes up alone in a tent in the Norwegian mountains, where a storm rages and she has no map, no compass, no food, and a dead phone. How she ended up there, and the tragic details of her life, emerge over the course of this novel.
The title of this slim book sounds like a virtuosic magic act, and the Norwegian writer Nicolai Houm delivers. In the first of his three novels to appear in English, his legerdemain is remarkable. He builds suspense even as he splinters his plot into nonlinear fragments. He conjures up the emotional arc of a female life—from childhood loneliness through intense love to midlife derailment—in just 226 undersized pages. Most unexpected of all, he deepens a tale of grief with a caustic comic tone ... In brief yet riveting scenes from the near and distant past, Houm lets readers piece together why Ashland has abandoned fiction and traveled to Norway, and how she ends up in the wild with a 40-something scientist ... Casting an unlikely spell, Houm conveys not just the tenacity but the tragedy of that longing.
The Gradual Disappearance of Jane Ashland is a suspenseful exploration of just how far down the rabbit hole of grief it is possible to fall. The switching between the desolate Norwegian landscape in which Jane finds herself trapped and the circumstances of her prior domestic life with her family, which was not without its own sense of confinement, works strikingly well, highlighting just how far Jane has fallen into despair and desolation and how her psyche perhaps needs to be fully broken before she can begin the process of healing. Nicolai Houm (here translated into English by Anna Paterson) has captured an excellent sense of place, with the Norwegian wilderness arguably serving as a key antagonist during Jane’s reflections on her life and her current self ... Houm manages to inject humor into the most unlikely places. Somehow, Jane’s despair manifests in numerous witty observations and droll one-liners, which help to lighten the mood and humanize her as a character. Her story is compelling, both her present predicament and the secrets lurking in her past, with a dark, mysterious undercurrent that moves the action forward at a rapid pace. The Gradual Disappearance of Jane Ashland is a short yet undeniably weighty book, and it makes for a hugely enjoyable read.
Houm discloses only so much and at just the right junctures ... and we play a guessing game while waiting on tenterhooks for explanations and consequences. The novel’s prose is plain and unadorned—so much so that Houm’s cumulative dramatic effects would have fallen short and fizzled out had he opted to tell his tale chronologically. Comparisons with compatriots are often unhelpful but it’s worth pointing out that Houm’s writing style resembles more the cool, streamlined lucidity of Per Petterson than the freewheeling, detail-stuffed meanderings of Karl Ove Knausgaard. Anna Paterson deserves credit for her accomplished translation. What we get is simplicity that is strangely compelling and quietly unsettling. Every so often Houm surprises and impresses with either a bout of profound thinking or a lyrical flourish ... The Gradual Disappearance of Jane Ashland is a beautifully observed account of one woman’s alienation, deep hurt and slow road to recovery.