Book review - The Blue Room

“I was never going to get out on my own,” says the narrator in Hanne Ørstavik’s searing portrait of a young woman’s sexual awakening, “someone was going to have to help me.” Given her dependence on and inability to separate from her mother, this is something of an understatement.

Johanne, a psychology student at Oslo University, wakes up to find herself locked in her bedroom. Through flashbacks we learn of her sheltered upbringing with her overbearing mother, Unni. They are both churchgoers and Johanne often sleeps with the Bible under her pillow. Two weeks earlier, she had met Ivar, a warm, laid-back musician who works in the university canteen, and experienced a dramatic transformation.

Ørstavik explores Johanne’s masochistic response to feelings of guilt. Because of her passive disposition, her attempts to be “good” and refrain from sin, Johanne is unnerved by the ferocity of her sexual desire. She feels God is forever “watching”, together with her mother, and the two become fused in her mind as she tries to please them both. Her repressed emotion manifests itself in intense back pain while her erotic fantasies of masculine domination become increasingly violent.

There are hints of domestic abuse in the family’s past and Unni is vociferously dismissive of men – a cutting pinned up in their apartment reads: “The Woman most in need of liberation is the woman that each man holds prisoner in his soul.” But this rings hollow. Unni is in a relationship with Svenn, a married man and, confident in her sexuality, often dresses provocatively. By contrast, Johanne wears long skirts and baggy tops that conceal her figure.

At first we see Unni as just a caring, over-protective mother worried about her daughter finding the right man. Using taut, spare prose, Ørstavik gradually reveals Unni’s controlling nature – through her sly comments about Johanne’s hair and weight, the plate of food she drops on learning about Ivar and the textbook she casually removes from her daughter’s bag. Johanne is strangely complicit in Unni’s behaviour; naively attempting to relate her academic studies to insights about herself and others, she remains blind to her mother’s oppression. Things come to a head when Ivar asks Johanne to join him in America for six weeks and she is forced to make the hardest decision of her life.

Ørstavik is well known in her native Norway. Thanks to Peirene Press she is published in English for the first time. Psychologically astute and deftly translated by Deborah Dawkin, The Blue Room is a brilliant examination of a young woman struggling to own her sexuality, to break free from guilt and forge her own identity.

Originally published by The Tablet