Translated by Damion Searls
Reviewed by Harriet
This extraordinary, powerful novel begins in Norway, in 1876, and it begins as it means to go on:
Brynhild’s head was wrapped in darkness. It was being pushed down into the pillow, face first. All the colours piled up, her heart beat hard, a pulsing knot of muscle in the middle of the sunset, throbbing red, glowing hot. Everything she was going to see and feel, face first, Everything she was going to experience. Brynhild slipped back and forth between sweat and dream, floated in darkness as sweat dribbled down from her opened mouth.
Brynhild Størseth is seventeen, working as a maid in a big house and in thrall to Firstborn, the eldest son of the house. She is drunk with passion and happiness, full of love, and of the knowledge that the child she finds she is carrying is ‘God’s creation’. But when she tells Firstborn she is pregnant, he kicks her in the stomach and destroys the child. Devastated, she goes home to her mother and then crosses the Atlantic to stay with her sister Nellie in Chicago. She has taken a new name, Bella. From now on she will be tormented by a mixture of overwhelming desire and shame, split between a belief that everything she will go on to do is God’s will and a fear of evil and punishment: ‘The Lord our God is a consuming fire, she repeated, Lord if you still see me, what do you want me to do?’
This is a short novel, but not an easy read. There’s only so much you can take at any one time of living inside Bella’s head – as, although written in the third person, the narrative can only be described as stream of consciousness. We follow Bella, or Belle as she later becomes, as she marries the beautiful Mads, then the beautiful Peder, and then seduces an untold number of sad lonely men who she meets through classified advertisements in the newspaper. She loves them all, but she kills them all. For the fictional Belle’s life closely follows the life of a woman known as America’s first serial killer, Belle Guinness. That being said, this is far from a conventional true crime novel, though several of these have been written about her. In exploring Belle’s feverish psychology, Kielland is attempting to show what drove her to becoming the notorious ‘Hell’s Belle’ whose exploits earned her a place in the Guinness Book of Records. Loneliness, sexual desire, shame, fear of displeasing God all add to the mix, and it’s impossible not to pity the woman despite her undeniably shocking acts.
The final ending of the real Belle’s life is mysterious. Her Indiana farmhouse caught fire in 1908, and a headless female body was found in the ruins. But the doctor who carried out the post-mortem testified that the body was five inches shorter and fifty pounds lighter than Belle, so presumably she faked her own death. This is clearly what Kielland believes, as the opening chapter of the novel, dated from ‘City of Angels, California, 1915’, shows Belle living on in fear and agony:
There are things I can’t ever admit, she whispered, things that are too big, too much, she could hardly breathe, that could destroy me. The words grabbed her by the throat, Belle didn’t know when it was all going to snap, but she knew it would. A bullet, an inverted lung, a postscript to a thousand wars, tears ran down her face, there’re too many of you.
Kielland avoids overtly making what may seem an obvious link between Belle’s first experience of sexual passion and her never ending desire for more men to satisfy it, or attributing her need to kill them to the rage induced by her treatment by Firstborn. But she does imply that these things were contributing factors, as certainly was her upbringing in oppressive Scandinavian Protestantism. Whatever we may think, this novel offers a breathtaking and unforgettable portrayal of mental illness, which has been excellently translated from the Norwegian original by Damion Searls. Well done to Pushkin Press for bringing it to an English-speaking audience.
Harriet is a co-founder and one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Victoria Kielland, My Men, trans. Damion Searls (Pushkin Press, 2023). 978-1782279273, 208pp., hardback.
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