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Linn Ullmann’s careful revelations and delicate timing are evocative and believable to all of us
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