Is Mother Dead, originally written in Norwegian, is longlisted for the International Booker Prize 2023. Read an extract from the book here
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.
Had I called Mum to get to know her again? To see who she was now? To talk to Mum as if she weren’t my mum, but an ordinary human being, a random woman at a railway station? That’s impossible. Not because she isn’t an ordinary human being with all the associated flaws, but because a mother can never be an ordinary human being to her children, and I am one of her children. Even if she has discovered new interests, learned new skills, changed her personality, she will always be the mother from the past to me. Perhaps she hates that that’s how it is, being a mother is a cross to bear. Mum is fed up with being a mum, with being my mum, and in a way she isn’t now, but as long as her daughter is alive, she can’t be safe. I wonder if Mum always felt that being my mum was incompatible with being herself? What if Mum had wished not to be my mum right from the moment I was born? But there was no escape for her, no matter how hard she tried. Or maybe she succeeded, perhaps she forgot that she was my mum during my long absence, and then I call to remind her of it. To her, it must have seemed to come out of the blue.
She’ll say she has changed. It’s understandable that parents, once they are older and wiser, want their children to look at them afresh. But no one can expect or demand of the children that they forget the image of their mother as they experienced her in their childhood or that they erase the image of their mother created over the first thirty years of their life and instead see her objectively as a seventy or eighty-year-old.
It’s easier for people who see their parents regularly. Most of my friends who see their parents regularly view them more kindly now that their rough edges have been smoothed by life’s ups and downs, they have become more indulgent and likeable, and some have acknowledged their mistakes as parents, and even apologized for them. Perhaps Ruth has experienced Mum growing warmer and wiser, that must be good for both Ruth and Mum. Slowly the old image is replaced with a new one, or the image of the young and the old meld and the image produced by this fusion is easier to live with. Someone who is in regular contact with their mother and who talks about the past with her, helps re-create the past, together they make history. That’s probably what happens. Ruth probably remembers the past the way Mum wants her to remember it.
But I’ve also heard stories of how those traits in the mother which were worst for the child during childhood have intensified during her life to the extent that they end up dominating her personality. Mina’s mother nagged and picked on Mina day in day out, year in year out, and she still does except now more harshly, more mercilessly. Mina visits her in the nursing home every day with rissoles and soup and is met with accusations and barbs, why does Mina bother? Because if she were to lose her temper and accuse her mother of being unreasonable, her mother would have her beliefs about life in general and Mina in particular confirmed, Mina says, and she is not going to give her the satisfaction. The fact that her mother’s words appear to have no effect on Mina, is Mina’s way of punishing her mother. Child and mother.
Will she ever know what it has been like, what it is like for me? She must wonder about it, surely? About what I think, about how I am, no matter how angry, how resentful she is
Once I had decided to move back, my work improved, I started a painting that I felt was promising, it came with me across the sea, but when the practicalities relating to my move were completed and I was supposed to go back to work, nothing happened. I started another picture, a spring-like painting, then I called Mum, then my inspiration dried up. I had intended to visit museums and galleries as I usually do when I’m stuck, but became aware of a fear of public spaces I hadn’t experienced before. Was it because I had been on my own so much after Mark’s death that I had become a recluse, or was it because I no longer knew the city or because Mum lived in it and I feared bumping into her? Once outdoors, I notice all the old women. They board trains all hunched up and slowly. They grip handles, lean against walls and doors, get up laboriously when the train approaches, check the contents of their old-fashioned handbags to make sure everything is there, purse, glasses, keys, I had started doing it myself, where are my glasses? At the chemist they sit on one of the few chairs, with introverted faces, they don’t read a newspaper, they don’t check their phone, they turn away from the world, or the opposite, they turn to the most immediate part of it, the number on the ticket between their lightly trembling fingers, the display board where new red numbers keep flashing up, everything happens so quickly, anxious that the number might change again before they have 16 had time to get up and walk to the counter to get their vital medication. Old bodies ail. Does Mum’s body ail? Why do I want to know that? Does Mum have a hearing aid? Why do I want to know that? I wonder. Information we can’t access is especially tantalising. In the absence of information, I invent her. What is it I want to know? I wonder how she is. Not because I care about her, not in that sense, but: How have you experienced it all? How was it for you? And how do you see the situation now, the existential one which we share, what do you think about our situation? Will I never know? Will she ever know what it has been like, what it is like for me? She must wonder about it, surely? About what I think, about how I am, no matter how angry, how resentful she is, she must wonder about it because in spite of everything I am her nearly sixty year-old child.
How old is Mum now? Many years ago I had a text message from Ruth: Mum is seventy today. I replied: Happy birthday and best wishes. It must have been before Dad died so she must be eighty-five now or older. I don’t remember which year she was born or her date of birth, it’s not as easy to find out these things as you would think. I could call someone in the family and ask them, Ruth or Mum’s brother, he is listed on 1881, but I can’t call them and ask when Mum’s birthday is, that’s a no-no. It’s in the autumn. I remember her fiftieth birthday, I think, because Thorleif came to that one, we stood in the garden underneath the fruit trees. Perhaps I’m making it up. But I remember how I struggled to breathe, the knot in my stomach I always had on such occasions when the family showed its public face, the feeling of having had a script thrust at me, the expectation that I would play my part, the loyal daughter of a lawyer, the wife of a lawyer, the law student, I was ill at ease with this role and the fact that the others, Thorleif, Ruth and the other guests were faithful to the script written by Mum and Dad, mostly Dad, and with the feeling of being controlled and how I couldn’t be myself, and besides I didn’t know who I was and I couldn’t find that out where I was, in Mum and Dad’s garden, in Mum and Dad’s company, I remember it clearly, the feeling of being trapped and a smouldering frustration which I feared at some point I wouldn’t be able to 18 suppress, and then what? Thorleif in awe of Dad, Thorleif agreeing with everything Dad said, Thorleif’s laughter when Dad mocked my ‘artistic pretensions’ and rolling his eyes because I wanted to apply to the Arts and Crafts Academy, the arty-farty academy, as he called it, how Thorleif laughed. I had thought from an early age that Dad wasn’t my real father. When I first heard the story of Hedvig who turns out not to be Hjalmar Ekdal’s biological daughter in The Wild Duck, I thought, that’s it! Except that I would never shoot myself if it turned out to be true, no, I would feel relieved and free, I think. Mum had been with another man, perhaps just for one night, got pregnant, and Dad suspected that she had been with someone else because I didn’t look like him, and every time Mum looked at me, she was reminded of her infidelity, she felt ashamed and lived in fear of being found out, that had to be it, it explained everything. Why she jumped whenever I entered a room unexpectedly. You scared me! For the umpteenth time Dad told the joke about two thieves who want to rob a museum, one asks the other how they will know which paintings are the most valuable, the ugliest ones his mate replies, ha-ha. It’s not art just because no one understands it, ha-ha. If you haven’t become a conservative by the time you’ve grown up, you haven’t got a brain. I was the brainless one. My attempts to counter this argument were met with indulgent smiles, every hint of protest was regarded as an immature wish to oppose for the sake of opposition, to get attention, to be laughed at. Thorleif laughed and my throat tightened, but the anger has burned itself out in me now. Mum’s burning gaze when she realised I wasn’t going to give a speech and Dad’s blue and glacial stare no longer bother me. It has all burned itself out in me now.
They know I’m in town. Mina called me, she had run into Ruth at Langvann, and when she told her that I had moved back for a while, she already knew.
They don’t get in touch. They are principled and proud, they made up their minds back when I didn’t turn up for Dad’s funeral, and that decided the matter.