‘To mother is to murder, or close enough,’ thinks Johanna, as she looks at the spelling of the two words in Norwegian.

Recently widowed, Johanna is back in Oslo after a long absence to prepare for a retrospective of her art. The subject of her work is motherhood and some of her more controversial paintings have brought about a dramatic rift between parent and child.  

This new proximity, after decades of acrimonious absence, set both women on edge. Before too long, Johanna finds her mother stalking her thoughts, and herself stalking her mother’s house.  

Is Mother Dead was longlisted for the International Booker Prize 2023, announced on March 14 2023. 

The International Booker Prize 2023
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Vigdis Hjorth

Vigdis Hjorth

About the Author

Vigdis Hjorth is a prize-winning, and best-selling, author and essayist.
More about Vigdis Hjorth
Charlotte Barslund

Charlotte Barslund

About the Translator

Charlotte Barslund is a hugely experienced translator of Scandinavian novels and plays.
More about Charlotte Barslund

Vigdis Hjorth on Is Mother Dead

Is Mother Dead is the title of the novel, but the question could just as well be: Can a mother die? I believe that a child’s mother or a child’s primary carer will, in one way or another, always live within the child, even when that child is an adult. Children are so dependent on their primary carers, and most people have conflicting emotions towards those on whom they depend. The novel is my attempt to investigate this complicated, ambivalent dynamic between a mother and an adult daughter who have been estranged for 30 years. Phew!   

‘I have written a lot about mothers. Once I was asked: What are you writing about at the moment? And I said: I´m writing about a mother who drinks too much. Oh! they said and asked: Did your mother drink? No, I said, I drink!  

‘My point is that the relationship between mother and child is a never-ending story. It changes during both their lives, and when you come to experience motherhood yourself, the perspective you have on your own mother naturally changes. Now I’m a grandmother as well! Life is a very interesting journey.’ 

Read the full interview here.

Vigdis Hjorth

What the judges said

‘This is a dark, chilling book. One of its tricks is to rely on a narrator who is an anti-heroine, and who can be annoying because of her narcissism and her malice. That’s what makes her real and what makes us care about her.’

What the critics said

Eileen Gonzalez, Foreword Reviews

‘At first, Johanna seems like an ordinary woman with reasonable questions about the family who tried to mold her in their image, and who then rejected her for rejecting them. Over time, her preoccupation with her estranged family grows, driving her to extreme, invasive measures. Her obsession propels the story toward its tense conclusion […] Is Mother Dead is a Norwegian domestic thriller about the lengths to which people will go to dig up truths that others want to stay buried.’

Kent Kosack, Asymptote

‘Writing with a rush of anxious interiority beautifully reproduced by Barslund’s translation, Hjorth spins out Joanna’s hopes, fears, and half-suppressed memories in obsessive and propulsive run-on sentences, full of self-reflexive questions and crushing doubt […] If we read the basement as suppressed memories, buried by pain and time, and the top floor as the land of fervent, authentic living, Joanna performs this double movement throughout the novel, the descent a prerequisite to the ascent. Is Mother Dead both pulls readers into Joanna’s adventure and calls on them to become more alive to their own task, their arms stretching upward for the next wrung.’

Leslie Camhi, 4Columns

‘Hjorth’s brief, diaristic chapters convey the flavor of psychological rumination, gradually building in intensity as Johanna grapples with the increasing desperation inspired by her eighty-five-year-old mother’s radio silence.’

Grace Kennedy, Ploughshares

‘Hjorth has masterfully written a family drama where no reunion takes place and a thriller where no blood is shed. Hjorth’s prose keeps us on edge, puncturing breathless sentences that stretch to half a page with four-word questions that undercut everything she previously said. There is a sense of inescapable claustrophobia.’


‘She’s compelling in her desire to understand what it means to be a fully grown woman and yet still need your mother. The novel’s strength lies in its deft use of psychological analysis as it looks at this relationship through one lens after another. While it’s full of metaphorical hauntings, it’s most plaintive in Johanna’s desire to have a conversation with her mother. The novel falters in its resolution, but Johanna’s intelligence and emotion still captivate […] A darkly insightful examination of mother-daughter relationships that captivates with the suspense of a thriller.’

Is Mother Dead