Don’t move – not because you can’t, but because you fear doing so.
Publisher: Peirene Press
First Published: 1999 in Norwegian; 2014 in English
Date Reviewed: 8th June 2014
Original language: Norwegian
Original title: Like Sant som jeg er Virkelig (As True as I Really Am)
Translated by: Deborah Dawkin
Johanne can’t leave her room. She’s woken up on the day she’s set to fly to America with Ivar and her door is jammed, or locked. She could call to someone from the window, or she could wait for her mother to return to the apartment. Whilst trapped she ruminates over recent events, on her relationship, and on her mother. Has Unni locked her in? If she has, Johanne can understand why.
The Blue Room, translated from the Norwegian by Deborah Dawkin, is a short, little-action story of fear, manipulation, and what you as the reader will recognise as decisions that have the potential to lead to regret. It is often confusing because of the sudden changes in time and place, but this matches Johanne’s mind and the way we flit from subject to subject when there is nothing to do but think.
At the heart of the story is the manipulation and control you see (or think you can see), the mother exerting over her daughter, and the way Johanne’s relationship with her parents has made her, Johanne, prefer routine and the safety of home over anything that little bit different. Even if the fun in difference is to her liking. This isn’t to say that Johanne gives up straight away each time, because sometimes she doesn’t – note that ‘sometimes’ – but when it really, really matters, when it’s the equivalent of reaching the last rung on the ladder, she ultimately gives in. Gives in, not gives up.
What’s interesting about Unni’s (the mother) control is that you are never quite sure whether she is manipulative or whether it’s the case that Johanne is holding herself back. This is one of the best elements of the book because Ørstavik keeps the whole truth from you by way of the first-person narration. Maybe it’s the effect of many unreliable narrators in the past – perhaps if this is your very first first-person book you’ll see through the clever storytelling and structure – but the conditioning that you have, your experience of unreliable narrators means that Ørstavik can play games with you. Is Johanne thinking too much? Obviously she is in some respects – her innocent relaying of Ivar’s response to the things she says shows she thinks too much sometimes – but when it comes to Unni, you’ll think you have it worked out only to be thrown back into confusion.
For a time. There comes a point when the answer is undeniable, and yet even then perhaps there is something ‘off’. As you go about trying to work it all out, trying to work out whether Johanne is locked in or whether she hasn’t tried enough or isn’t bothered enough about leaving, you are effectively introduced to the mistrust that can accompany a victim’s account of their troubles.
In Johanne’s memories, and once you’re back to the present for good, and the dialogue between the two, Unni says some strange, some bad things. She suggests, in a passive-aggressive manner that Johanne is deaf to, that Johanne dump a nice boyfriend. Or does she see something in Ivar that Johanne has missed? It is obvious that The Barns, the housing development the family will build (‘with what money?’ is an assuming but obvious question here) sometime in the distant future, is both a lie to keep Johanne at home and a reason for Johanne to want to forgo any attempt to better her life. Why have a boyfriend and live independently when you’ll be able to live with your mother in a nice house with your brother (who’s no longer there), setting up your business there and thus never needing to leave?
It’s worth noting that some things Unni remarks upon would be simply laughed at or ignored by most people. This is a prime point to the debate over Johanne’s decisions (she thinks up some peculiar ideas that seem not to be influenced by anything). We wonder – we mistrust again.
Whether or not Unni is to blame (in a big way – we could never rule her influence out completely) for the following, Johanne has a fear of difference, of the unknown. It’s worth considering that if Unni has locked the door, then this is Johanne’s strongest effort to leave so far. If Unni’s locked her in, she must feel as if Johanne is slipping from her grasp. It’s the same with Johanne’s self-worth. There is a punishment and reward system at work, both solely resting with Johanne, and at the behest of Unni.
There are the erotic, perverted, thoughts. The blurb of the book speaks of our erotic fantasies being influenced by our parents and as you read on you see how Johanne’s arousal from horrible ideas has happened. Johanne doesn’t want to be in those situations, she apologises to God and worries about it all the time (Johanne’s faith in God itself is seemingly her choice but possibly furthered by those she knows).
It sounds like Johanne’s brother doesn’t see his mother any more, or at the most he’s got away from the family and is in America. If we consider this and Johanne’s chance to spend time in that country, then perhaps Ørstavik is using the ideals about America, the land and the freedom. There is nothing wrong with Oslo – unless your name is Johanne. And if your name is Johanne then every reader will be rooting for you no matter what they think about you.
Is Johanne held back? Is she too like her mother? Will she just repeat the cycle and not break it?
Johanne has a chance to get away, even if she misses this opportunity, even if she loses Ivar. She needs you to support her, and the best way you can do that is to read The Blue Room.
I received this book for review from the publisher.
June 9, 2014, 5:33 am
Perine publish such great books. This sounds like another one I need to read. I do like a narrative with plenty of scope for interpretation. :)
June 9, 2014, 7:07 am
Now I do wonder how it all really is…interesting
June 9, 2014, 7:16 pm
You’ve definitely got me curious about this one, Charlie. It sounds complicated–and I love a book that can keep me on my toes.
June 9, 2014, 9:15 pm
Violet: Agreed. I’ve yet to read one I didn’t like. Yes, there’s a lot of scope here, I sent my review to Peirene saying I wasn’t sure I’d quite got everything!
Blodeuedd: Yep, and you keep on thinking until the very end. Which may or may not shock you depending on where your thoughts had been leading.
Literary Feline: That’s one of the most interesting aspects, really. Nothing much happens given the literal limitations, but it does indeed keep you on your toes. She’s very complex, this Johanne.
June 10, 2014, 7:01 am
This sounds a challenging book and maybe one I’d be tempted to skip to the end.
June 10, 2014, 12:58 pm
Hmm, not sure if this appeals to me or not but I am intrigued by it. Thanks for sharing.