Book Review: The Gradual Disappearance of Jane Ashland

The Gradual Disappearance of Jane Ashland, by Nicolai Houm (translated by Anna Paterson), opens with a woman waking up in a tent believing she is going to die. Just a short time before she had flown to Norway to meet up with distant relatives. She has now been abandoned in a cold, lonely landscape; left without food, water or a map. The woman’s name is Jane Ashland and she struggles to relate to anyone, or to care much about their reactions to her behaviour.

The story moves around in time between Jane’s years studying literature at university, her relationships, the time spent with relatives in Norway, and the events leading to her abandonment. It becomes clear that Jane is damaged. She drinks heavily and relies on prescription drugs. Each chapter is a jigsaw piece in the puzzle that reveals the story of her life. It takes a little while for the picture to take shape, for the pieces to slot together.

Jane’s behaviour early on may be harshly judged, initial impressions being as they are reliant on a code of social conformity. The snapshots given of her background, shown as they are out of order, encourage the reader to guess at reasons. This is cleverly done – prejudices may be revealed.

From Jane’s earlier life in America through to her attempts to connect with family in Norway there is an underlying feeling of impending crisis. The complexities inherent in any relationship are adroitly presented. The evocation of grief is vivid and piercing.

The non linear structure requires the reader to follow multiple threads. Knowing that Jane ends up in a life threatening situation adds tension. The writing though is more literary than thriller in style. It is haunting and deeply moving.

This is a love story depicted with realism and regret, an exploration of empathy, or its lack, in what comes after. Jane’s behaviour will take the reader through a roller-coaster of emotions. A powerful, enthralling read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.

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