Reviewed by Hayley Anderton
I read the press release for The Blue Room (published in Norwegian in 1999, and now published by Periene Press in a translation by Deborah Dawkin) which argues that it comes from the same place in the female psyche as Fifty Shades of Grey so decided some homework was in order. I’ve not read Fifty Shades beyond a few pages which made me feel like I’d really rather not but I know it was born out of fan fiction, so I went looking for fan fiction. It’s a weird world out there but at least it’s free, you can find short stuff, and you can cover a fairly wide range if fantasies quite quickly. Nothing I found was well written which is interesting in terms of the whole self publishing market, but that’s a debate for another time. I’m guessing a lot of what I read was written by girls in their late teens or early twenties and a desire to be submissive certainly seems to be popular.
Hanne Ørstavik’s book is a world away from what I found online though – for a start it’s extremely well written and crucially it isn’t playing out a fantasy. The bare bones of the plot are this: Johanne, a student in her early twenties, wakes up on the day she’s planned to leave for America with her boyfriend to find herself trapped in her room. We spend the day in Johanne’s mind whilst she reflects on the events which have lead up to this day. Johanne lives with her mother in a tiny Oslo flat, she has a room, the blue room of the title, but her mother sleeps behind a curtain in the sitting room. Their domestic life seems to have no boundaries – as evidenced by several conversations whilst one or other of them uses the toilet. That lack of physical boundaries carries through into every aspect of their relationship – or so it would seem from Johanne’s narration.
Strictly speaking she’s not a reliable narrator, but as we spend the duration of the novel in her head she’s not precisely unreliable either; if she’s telling lies she’s telling them to herself. Initially the suspicion has to be that this mother daughter relationship is abusive, the devoutly Christian Johanne is given to breaking into disturbingly graphic fantasies of rape and violence which the reader feels have to come from somewhere. We’re also left to wonder what has happened to her father and brother; the brother is apparently studying in America but there is no mention of what happened to the father at all. Towards the end of the book, though, early certainties fall apart.
Johanne says she’s chosen to stay with her mother to save money, she has a future all mapped out, university followed by practice as a psychiatrist in an office to be built on her grandmothers land in space she still intends to share with her mother. It’s easy to assume that the mother won’t let go of the daughter but how much does the daughter want independence, and for that matter does her mother unambiguously want her there? Johanne’s carefully laid plans experience a convulsion when she meets Ivar and starts a sexual relationship with him (or at least I assume she does and that this isn’t more fantasy). Almost immediately he suggests they go to America together for 6 weeks; the day she’s locked into her room is only two weeks into the relationship and later it seems that Johanne hadn’t told Ivar that she intended to meet him on the way to the airport.
It’s a slippery book. Johanne isn’t the easiest character to warm to, and in the end you have to question her view point. Her mother is portrayed as steadily more sinister, her clothing becomes more provocative and we’re encouraged to think she’s having an affair with a married man, but maybe this too is one of Johanne’s fantasies. Arguably it’s quite responsible of a mother to try and prevent her daughter leaving the country mid term with a man she’s only known for two weeks, but it’s equally likely that Johanne had no intention of leaving – that what she’s actually doing is manipulating her mother into keeping her close.
At heart popular rape and submission fantasies are a repudiation of responsibility; a desire to have your cake and eat it. When E. M. Hull wrote The Sheik in 1919 rape meant her heroine could have exotic sex outside of marriage without being judged for it. I’m inclined to wonder if the continued popularity of rape fantasies, or fantasies about submissive sexual roles give tacit permission not to enjoy sex. Either way there seems to be a reluctance to take responsibility either for pleasure or the lack of it when all you’re doing is what you’re told. Ørstavik takes that to another level, Johanne’s submission forces someone else to make her decisions for her; in this case it’s her mother whose prepared to do that in a cycle that traps them both.
This is quite a dark book but it’s undoubtedly one of my favourite Peirene titles. It genuinely does hold up a mirror to a part of the female psyche it’s not always pleasant to explore honestly. I’m not sure I agree with Meike when she says it analyses the struggle of women to separate from their mothers though; I read it more as the struggle some daughters make not to be separated.
Hayley Anderton blogs at Desperate Reader, where this review has already appeared.
Hanne Ørstavik, The Blue Room (Peirene, London, 2014) ISBN 978-1908670151, paperback, 164pp.
Head over to BookBuzz to read a Spotlight on Publishing piece by Meike of Peirene Press.