Review Aliss at the Fire

By Jon Fosse, trans. Damion Searls

Originally published in the Independent Wednesday, 13 October 2010

In this simple tale by the Norwegian author Jon Fosse, a middle-aged woman lies down on a bench in her house beside a fjord and thinks back to 23 years earlier when she stood by the window waiting for her husband, Asle. On that stormy day in late November, Asle took his rowing boat out onto the water and never returned.

Written in a single paragraph, in the form of an extended interior monologue, Fosse's haunting story begins in 2002 and unwinds to cover five generations. Signe relives the day of her loss over and over. Nothing is forgotten. She recalls the final exchanges with her husband, the look of his retreating back, her sense of anxiety, before she confronts the ghosts of her husband's family and an earlier tragedy over 100 years before.

Gradually, the voices of these ghosts and their lives intermingle with her own: "They just stand there, they just don't move, she thinks. They stand there, they stand there as though they had been standing there since time immemorial she thinks. And she stands there. She stands there and looks at Asle, at Brita, Kristoffer, Old Aliss."

The fjord has been both friend and foe to the numerous generations that have passed through the old house. As well as providing a livelihood for the fishermen, it also proves an implacable force of nature in the winter months when it becomes a dark, brooding presence, "grey and black and colourless". Reeling back the years, Asle's great-great-grandmother Aliss nearly loses her son Kristoffer in the dark waters. Later, in 1897, Aliss witnesses the death of her grandson, also called Asle, who drowns in the fjord at the tender age of seven.

It is some measure of Fosse's talents that he manages to weave such a compelling narrative from a largely static setting, although it comes as no surprise to discover that he is also an acclaimed playwright. Nothing really happens and yet there is something quietly dramatic about Fosse's meandering and rhythmic prose, aided by Damion Searls's limber translation, which has a strangely mesmerising effect.

In this slim novella, the story is stripped down to its emotional core, making for an intense reading experience. Fosse paints a harsh, unforgiving landscape and conveys with delicate precision Signe's pain and bereavement that the long, lonely years have done little to dispel.