Book: Stella Descending by Linn Ullmann, trans Barbara Haveland, The Independent

The Independent 23 January 2004.

21/04/2004 ::  

A leap in the dark that lasts a lifetime

"We have a man and a woman on the roof of an apartment building... walking back and forth along the edge, like tightrope walkers, circus artistes, equilibrists. We have an embrace and a fall. The woman pulls herself out of the man's arms and falls. Or he pushes her and she falls." So summarises the detective on the case in Linn Ullmann's second novel. The woman fell to her death; there were three witnesses, none fully attentive, recalling those who saw Icarus's descent from the sky in Auden's tribute to Brueghel, "Musée des Beaux Arts".

The novel's investigation into what actually happened on that August night in Oslo has to be made by a fusion of intuition and intelligence. The two seconds that the woman's fatal tumble lasted constitute as many-layered and complex an entity as far longer, more obviously stratified events - as a marriage, a battle, or a game, to use analogies pertinent to this tragic moment, which partakes of all three of them.

The woman is Stella, a nurse who specialised in geriatrics and the terminally ill. An affectionate mother of two daughters, she was herself a daughter denied affection - by beautiful Edith, obsessed by her lesbian lover. The man is Stella's husband of 10 years, Martin, a furniture salesman who - then a tireless amorist - was first drawn to Stella when he delivered to her ninth-storey flat an avocado-green sofa, later to feature in their love-games.

By a curious but significant coincidence, Martin's Swedish grandfather, whom he takes after, himself witnessed - when a young man in 1934 - a fall to the death from this very apartment building in the Frogner district of Oslo.

The presentation of this mystery is complex, made through several voices, including the dead woman's own. In particular, we are spoken to by Axel, an old man once in Stella's care and now infatuated by her to the point of disliking Martin. A former schoolmaster, he has a shabby past involving compromise with Norway's Nazi occupiers. But important, too, is teenage Amanda, Stella's older daughter by a previous relationship, who has developed a friendship of her own with Axel, and also resents Martin.

Ullmann's grasp of the ambiguous natures of her people, and her understanding of their backgrounds, is admirably strong. The governing metaphor of the fall, and of the density of those two seconds, is at once poetic and intellectually satisfying.

What for me at times vitiates the novel's success, however, is Ullmann's inclusion of material extraneous to this central image. For example, the mammothly overweight woman detective, Corinne, surely belongs to the school of Norwegian women's detective fiction so cultishly popular in the Nineties (as in the novels of Pernille Rygg). It should not have been necessary for this fundamentally serious fictional inquiry. Ullmann should purge herself of such glances at other writers. For, as Stella Descending abundantly shows, she has a keenness of ear and eye, and a sharpness of mind, that is all her own.


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