on April 16, 2014
Jenny Brodal, dreading the celebration of her 75th birthday, pours herself a glass of red wine. She looks at the bottle of Cabernet, waits for some awareness in her body of the alcohol, and stops. She had never said she would not drink again. “She had taken one day at a time, one day at a time, and never, never, said never.” The opening pages in Linn Ullmann’s latest novel, THE COLD SONG, illustrate how meticulously she develops each character. In just a few sentences, she shows an aging matriarch facing a crisis and begins creating the tension necessary to write a family story.
Each member of Jenny’s family is introduced, layered with secrets and anger. Her daughter Siri married for passion but is betrayed over and over by Jon, who published two successful novels and pretends to work on the last piece of the trilogy. His writer’s block is so severe that he resorts to copying pages of Danish Literature: A Short Critical Survey so that his wife will hear the sound of his typing. Siri and Jon have two daughters, Alma and Liv. On a dare from other students, Alma cuts off the blonde plait of her 52-year-old teacher, and her pride keeps her from implicating the other kids. Her forced notes of apology are dark and irreverent, capturing exactly the stubborn honesty of a teenage girl. She is also scary.
Liv is younger and more tractable, and seems to enjoy the company of Milla, a young woman Siri and Jon hired as caretaker for the summer. Milla makes an impression on young boys, all of the other women, and middle-aged Jon, but disappears in July 2008, the night of Jenny’s birthday party. Her body is discovered two years later, and the novel reveals how each person who knew Milla reacts to her life and to her death.
Milla is romantic and magical, and 10-year-old Simen fell in love with her. He wants to be the one to find her. He and his bicycle search the woods for weeks, and his intensity is partly seen in his cycling. He circles around Jon during one conversation, and Jon sees “his cycling was as effortless as his speech, as instinctive, or more so: The turn of the pedals, the whir of the wheels, the hum of his voice, it was as if, Jon thought, he were actually talking through the bike, breathing through the bike, as if he and the bike were one.” The boy looking for the beautiful girl becomes as magical as her.
Two things stand out in this excellent book. The first is the seamless movement of multiple complex characters through several years of time plus flashbacks to a tragedy in Siri’s early childhood. The night of Jenny’s 75th birthday party is told again and again to show the whereabouts of the family members and Milla, the girl “in the red dress and red shawl (the one she had borrowed from Siri)” with a white flower in her hair. Milla will not return, but the story of her life is repeatedly woven in and out of the others in the community.
The second is the impossibly perfect ending, specifically the last four pages. The details of Milla’s murder are verified, and the accounting of what each of them knows is about to begin. Exactly how much truth will be told, who will tell it, and who will believe it are not clear, but it is an honest ending. There is no flamboyance or dramatic accusation --- just the beginning of a group of damaged people starting to tell the truth.
Leo Tolstoy’s assessment of relationships, All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, rings true in THE COLD SONG. The ugly secrets and tragic deaths are peculiar to Jenny Brodal and those who surround her, but Linn Ullmann’s careful revelations and delicate timing are evocative and believable to all of us --- from happy and unhappy families alike.
Reviewed by Jane Krebs
on May 7, 2014
I was fascinated by Linn Ullmann's novel and looked forward to being transported into her world every time I sat down to resume reading The Cold Song, but not for the usual reasons you might read a mystery. Yes, there is a murder here, but it's nearly a secondary subplot. The real thrumming tension in this book comes from the family dynamics. Ullmann presents a family's breakdown better than almost any other contemporary literary writer, with real shadows of grief and some supremely dark humor in this book that reminded me a lot of early John Updike. As an added plus for me as a writer, there were probably the best descriptions of a writer suffering extreme writer's block that I've stumbled across anywhere. She's also a master of point-of-view shifts, even granting the dog his say for some comic moments, and you know what? I bought right into that perspective and I usually detest talking animals in novels. I can't even hate Ullmann for being beautiful, because her writing is so brilliant.
on April 29, 2014
Jon & Siri and their two young daughters return each summer to Siri’s childhood home, just south of Oslo. Mailund, the big white house, has been in the family for years and although not in perfect shape, gives them a break from their everyday existence. This time around, Jon has come to finish his novel. A task that seems impossible due to many things, but mainly the writer’s block that he regularly complains of. But there is a lot more going on. Jon’s affair with a woman down the street is what takes him out of the house on a regular basis, and even though he often tells his wife that he’s “walking the dog”, Siri is aware of his philandering ways and yet, doesn’t say anything to him, hoping that he’ll come to his senses.
That alone is enough material for a novel but The Cold Song does not stop there. Milla, a young girl hired to care for the children, becomes Jon’s obsession. Although their interactions are innocent enough, the tension is palpable whenever these two are in the room with one another. Milla, is also the focus of Alma, Jon and Siri’s twelve-year-old daughter. Alma seems to note the connection between Milla and her father right away, but Alma is not all there and has issues of her own to contend with. When Milla goes missing, the town is turned upside down trying to solve the mystery and Milla’s mother, Amanda, is convinced that Jon and Siri have something to do with her disappearance.
This is not a flashy, in your face, detective story or a story about a broken marriage. It’s a beautifully constructed story centered around flawed (VERY) flawed characters trying to find their place as the situations around them escalate out of control. These are not the types of friends that I’d like to have, ever, but man, did they make for some good reading. I wouldn’t say that anyone in this house is normal, except maybe the dog but their interactions with each other are awkward and sometimes disturbing and somehow it all works.
What I liked most about this novel is that it’s not any one thing. It’s not a mystery, or a romance or any of the genres that you typically think of when classifying a novel.
Have you read it? Have you read any books by Other Press before? I’ve read at least four and all of them surprised me in a good way.
on May 7, 2014
It's amazing how destructive secrets and assumptions can be.
Siri Brodal is a driven, successful restaurant owner in Norway. She's married to Jon Dreyer, a well-known author who has written two-thirds of a popular trilogy, but can't seem to find the words or inspiration for a third book. Instead he spends his time staring at his computer, sending texts and emails to other women, and then having affairs with them (under the guise of walking the family dog or running errands). Siri knows that Jon is a philanderer, but she hopes that once he finishes his book their relationship might go back to normal, although it is consistently challenged by the erratic behavior of their older daughter, Alma.
In an effort to help Jon finish his book, the couple hires Milla, a young woman, to care for Alma and their younger daughter, Liv, when the family takes a summer holiday to the coast of Norway, where they stay in the mansion owned by Siri's formidable, eccentric mother, Jenny. Jenny and Siri's relationship has always been troubled, especially after the death of Siri's younger brother when he was four and she was six.
Milla's presence causes further friction in everyone's lives, especially as Milla takes an interest in Jon, one he appears to reciprocate. Then one night, during Jenny's 75th birthday, Milla disappears, seemingly without a trace. Although it takes a significant amount of time before her remains are discovered and the truth of what happened to her is revealed, her life—and death—brings to light suspicions and secrets that have remained dormant in many relationships. Both Siri and Jon wonder whether their actions played any part in what happened to Milla, and whether they could have done anything to prevent it from happening.
Linn Ullmann's The Cold Song is an interesting book, in that while there is a murder and that causes a bit of a mystery briefly, it is more of a book about how Milla's disappearance and death impacts the other characters and lays bare the fractures in their relationships. It's a tremendously atmospheric book, and you can almost feel the rain and mist that often surrounds the town where much of the book takes place.
Ullmann does a great job in creating her characters and giving them idiosyncrasies and layering them with complexity. While much of the plot is somewhat familiar, Ullmann's storytelling ability keeps you compelled, interested in finding out what issues will come to light and how the plot will be resolved.
on May 5, 2014
This is a novel with the account of the disappearance and murder of a young au pair at it's heart. But the young girl's disappearance and the discovery of her body in a small Norwegian seaside resort does not define the book. It's the murders effect on everyone in the girls life that is central like the ripples caused by a stone dropped in a pond. Jon and Siri are the girls employers, she looks after their two small girls Alma and Liv while Siri runs her restaurant and Jon, an author suffering from writer's block, ostensibly writes his new novel. They live with Siri's authoritative mother Jenny in her big White House on the hill for the Summer. There are multiple tensions in the family, financial concerns, Jon's rampant infidelity, Siri's resentment of her strong willed mother who is off the wagon drinking for the first time in decades. All seems to come to a head the night Milla goes missing from Jenny's seventy fifth birthday. Her disappearance and the discovery of her body by a group of young boys receives endless press coverage and the lives of the family finally start to completely unravel. I have read other books by Nordic authors and have found some sterile and cold in tone in style. The prose of this piece is spare as well but the depth of it's character development and it's rich sometimes almost humorous tone make it much more readable. The translator of this piece seems to have preserved the author's original voice. It is a fascinating character study with a tense plot, a great summer read.
Jon Dreyer is a blocked writer living in Oslo but summering in a house called Mailund. He is married to Siri Brodal, who has hired a girl named Milla to look after their two daughters, Alma and Liv. At thirteen, Alma has done some babysitting of her own for a boy named Simen who lives nearby. Siri's mother, Jenny Brodal, owns Mailund, where Siri grew up. Siri's second restaurant is nearby in the seaside community.
The Dreyer-Brodals are a dysfunctional family on steroids, a family falling apart. Early in the story, the reader knows that Jenny has a dark history, that Siri feels responsible for a drowning that occurred during her childhood, that Jon is working his way through all of the deadly sins instead of writing, and that Alma is mean and spiteful. We know that Jenny's friend Irma, a large woman who plays the role of caretaker, is unpleasant and controlling. We know little about Milla, except that she seems to crave Jon's attention. We know that the family's disobedient dog is "every dog's revenge on mankind." Welcome to Norway, land of the terminally depressed.
As The Cold Song opens, a celebration of Jenny's 75th birthday is about to take place. Jenny, who would prefer not to attend, is preparing for the event by breaking 20 years of sobriety. The story reveals snapshots of that day, then backs away to fill in scenes from the past and from the future. The reader knows, because it is one of the novel's first scenes, that two years after the party, Simen will find Milla's body buried beneath a tree. What the reader does not know is how or why Milla died. That becomes the mystery that drives the story.
Much of the novel is a history of the characters' relationships, illuminated by key scenes. Their feelings for each other are complex and always changing. We see who they are and who they pretend to be. We watch them in the present as they try to cope with their pasts. We experience Jon's untethered existence and Siri's irrational anger. As the marriage of Jon and Siri curdles, as their daughter becomes distant and uncontrollable, we feel their frustration and resignation. The story is deeply introspective, taking the reader into the depths of Jon's mind and, to a lesser extent, into the minds of other characters.
Many readers dislike books about unlikable characters. Those readers should probably avoid The Cold Song, as should readers who are looking for life-affirming stories. The characters are compelling but you would not want them as friends. Few of the characters (including Milla's parents after her death) behave admirably. Still, The Cold Song sheds light on personalities that are familiar to us all, and on characteristics that (hopefully to a lesser extent) we all share.
The Cold Song is not by any means a conventional mystery novel but it doesn't pretend to be an Agatha Christie or a thriller. This is a story about how events shape people. The last quarter of the novel isn't as tight as the first three-quarters -- it doesn't advance as briskly -- and the ambiguous ending comes as an anti-climax given the prolonged setup, although the last couple of paragraphs offer a glimpse of redemption and healing that is missing from the rest of the narrative. The reader is required to fill in some gaps (or is left wondering about certain events) but that is the nature of life. Linn Ullman dissects the lives of her characters in prose that is is as sharp and sparkling as crystalline ice. That is reason enough to read this disturbing, insightful novel.
The Cold Song
My " in a nutshell" summary...
This book involves a dysfunctional family and an old mystery in a summer town in Norway. This family seems to be connected to their nanny's disappearance.
My thoughts after reading this book...
This book was a bit quirky though endlessly fascinating. Siri and Jon and Liv and Alma...quite an odd little family...Siri a chef with two restaurants...trying to support her family...Jon a writer who can't write...in addition to cheating on Siri...and Alma...quite the weird child. She is friendless, a loner and even was expelled from school for chopping off her teacher's pigtail. In the summers they live in their grandmother's house. Siri runs a summer restaurant while Jon tries to unblock his writer's block. Milla is hired to watch their daughters but disappears during a party and is not found...until her grave is dug up by some young boys years later. I am not quite sure of the connection between Milla's attack and death...she was attacked by someone...but not killed by that person. It sort of all comes out in spurts that are sometimes hard to understand. It's one of those books where key parts are revealed bit by bit and sometimes when you least expect anything to be revealed something major is revealed.
What I loved about this book...
I had no clue at all about what happened to Milla until the very end.
What I did not love about this book...
I did not care about most of these characters. I thought many of them were weird. Jenny...Siri's mother...hasn't had a drink in 25 years and suddenly gets wasted at her birthday party...and I still don't truly get Irma...she seemed to be Jenny's live in friend? And Siri continues to be described as the pretty woman with a twisted back? Siri seems to always be making up for her meanness.
This wasn't a book I totally loved although there were parts of it that I enjoyed reading. There seemed to be a lot of disconnect between all key players.
Would this be a good choice for you...potential reader?
Not sure. I thought I would like this much more than I did. Parts were good...parts were not good for me. It is sort of dark...sort of intense...sort of depressing, actually. I think for me the characters were a bit off putting...both Alma and Milla were really weird.
My thanks to Amazon and Edelweiss for giving me access to this book.
on May 6, 2014
I am sorry to have to give this book a bad review as normally I really like novels from "northern" European writers which often have brooding psychological themes that make for intense and satisfying reading. But this book is just plain bad, I'm afraid. The story circles around and around [and around] a party a woman named Siri [unrelated to she of Apple] is giving for her mother's [Jenny] 75th, ostensibly to give us differing viewpoints of the event but it is all just repetitious writing that gets quite grating. We already know at the beginning of the book that Milla, their young nanny, disappeared the night of the party and her body was found two years later. And we know who did it in the first third of the book. That's not the gist of the book at all - it's the shouting matches each of the dis-likable characters has with each other. Jenny screams at Siri, Siri screams at her two-timing husband Jon and their weird daughter Alma does, well, weird things. Not even one character is fully developed: Siri runs restaurants but we never get a glimpse of her working, she's just always tired. Jon is a writer working on the third book of a trilogy but we don't know what it's about. Jenny is an alcoholic but it doesn't explain her extreme anger. Oh, and her caregiver, Irma, screams at both Siri and Jon. You just can't like any of them.
Milla is not developed either - we don't know if she is naive or just plain stupid to wander off from the party to go to the bar down the road by herself. There's no story there, though, because it's only about how much pain people can inflict on one another. The ending is not a resolution of anything either. You still detest all of them.
on June 26, 2014
It seemed to start slow and I was getting impatient with this book when all at once it grabbed me and I was reading late into the night, completely entranced. What's more, I couldn't stop thinking about the characters and their stories, even after I'd finished the book.
It seems important to ask who is guilty when an innocent person is murdered. In this case, there appear to be more than one accomplice.
on May 25, 2014
The Cold Song opens as a well-written, well-observed mystery: During an expedition to recover a buried "treasure" a trio of young boys stumble on the remains of a girl who disappeared from their seas-side community two years earlier. One of them was among the last people to see the girl, Milla alive -- and the circumstances . The childhood codes of honor, and the adult culture of secrecy and suppression that web the small community are effectively evoked and create just the kind of sense of foreboding you expect from an intelligent if formulaic murder story; but they also serve Ullman's psychological exploration of the weight and legacy of guilt - familial, professional , and criminal. The story moves back in time and the focus soon changes to the troubled family for whom Milla had been serving as a nanny when she disappeared and never recaptures the tension and urgency of the opening chapter but Ullmann's unsparing portrait of the marriage at the center of the story is finely wrought, and serves as a prism through which to look at the murder from various psychological perspectives.