Book Review: A Modern Family

“Family members are never truly able to see another completely clearly, only ever through the veil that their relationship draws over things”

A Modern Family, by Helga Flatland (translated by Rosie Hedger), tells the story of three grown-up and independent siblings whose lives are thrown off kilter when their elderly parents announce they plan to divorce. Set mostly in Norway, it offers a window into the rivalry, resentment and jealousy that exists within the framework of an otherwise loving family. It depicts love, familial and romantic, as inherently selfish.

Liv is the eldest child and believes her siblings rely on her to provide leadership and stability. Now in her forties, she married Olaf in her twenties and they have two children. Her sister, Ellen, is two years younger and in a relationship with Simen. Håkon, their brother, is a decade younger and single. The tale opens with this group flying to Italy with their parents for a holiday to celebrate the father’s seventieth birthday.

The bombshell announcement reverberates through each of the siblings’ lives on their return home. Initially, Liv is the most affected as the foundations she has built her life on are swept away. In her anger she distances herself from her parents, the fallout affecting Olaf and their children. Liv believes her siblings feel as she does and resents that they, once again, expect her to sort out the mess.

Ellen has other things on her mind. Unbeknown to everyone, she and Simen are trying for a baby and struggling. The job that has given her pride and satisfaction becomes a secondary concern. She feels a failure and, as such, will not seek support from those she looks to for praise and validation. Initially surprised by Liv’s take on events, she comes to empathise.

“the whole thing draws a veil of insincerity over every memory and experience and belief I have relating to family life, with Mum and Dad clearly able to brush off forty years of marriage, to abandon so easily the union that created us.”

Håkon’s views on the situation are not revealed until close to the denouement. His sisters have only recently begun to regard him as an adult and do not always share with him their personal concerns. In some ways more accepting of individual decisions, he is nevertheless shaken by what inevitably comes next.

Told from the points of view of each of the siblings in turn, the story unfolds over a two year period. Much changes, as in life it always will.

What comes to the fore in the tale are the assumptions each family member makes about the others’ observations and feelings. Despite being close, understanding is flawed. Shared memories are shown to be at variance as are perceived roles. The siblings vie for approval and attention, viewing the others primarily in relation to themselves.

The cosy semblance of family values is challenged with each recalibration emotionally painful, especially when what proves false is the centre around which an individual has built their self-esteem.

The writing is clear and concise with structure and flow well balanced making this an engaging read. It is character driven with sub-plots that resonate.

An incisive look at family with all its fictions and flaws. A reminder that people are never static entities and are viewed through a reflecting lens.

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

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Book Review: The Bird Tribunal

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The Bird Tribunal, by Agnes Ravatn (translated by Rosie Hedger), is a psychological thriller set on the edge of a remote fjord in Norway. The two main characters, Sigurd Bagge and Allis Hagtorn, each have secrets they are struggling to escape. They seek solace in seclusion, hoping for eventual redemption. Their pasts hover over and haunt each action they take.

Sigurd lives alone in the traditional wooden villa where he has spent his entire life. Allis arrives to take up an advertised position helping to bring order to his neglected garden. She prepares his meals and carries out simple housekeeping tasks. He tells her that his wife, Nor, is away, giving no indication when she will return. Despite their proximity he maintains a distant, steely silence. He gives instructions but shares little else.

Allis has run away from a scandal and initially finds the solitude of her new position a balm. She is content with the detachment her employer insists on, but over time curiosity and loneliness make her long for a greater connection. She works hard at the tasks assigned to her, learning as she goes along. Eventually she becomes frustrated at Sigurd’s refusal to share anything of himself.

As if realising she may leave him, Sigurd starts to share wine, time and, eventually, conversation. Fuelled by alcohol and darkness they reveal aspects of their pasts. Morning often as not brings regrets although rarely acknowledged. The advance and retreat of Sigmund’s willingness to share further vexes Allis, as does her awkwardness in his presence.

There remains a brittleness in their relationship that fractures under the slightest pressure. I wondered at the characters, their desolation and potential for psychosis.

The short, precise chapters weave a web of foreboding from the off. Each plot thread offers further detail whilst in the dark corners lurk unseen threats. As Allis tiptoes around the taciturn Sigurd there is the sense of an ominous reveal biding its time. The journey thrums with unease as it spirals towards a menacing denouement.

The setting is used to great effect as are the seasons. Locked rooms in the house are opened, the forest is both a blanket from the world and a threat. Allis is given use of many of Nor’s possessions. Although absent, her presence is felt.

I ponder still who was the spider and who the fly. This tale left me chilled, but in the best possible way. The author has taken familiar activities and shrouded them in intrigue. This is a captivating, atmospheric read.

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

This review is a stop on The Bird Tribunal Blog Tour. Do check out the other blogs taking part, detailed below.

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The Bird Tribunal is published by Orenda Books and is available to buy now. 

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