Mommy Issues

A bunch of lillies
A Norwegian novel asks: When we talk to our mothers, can we ever really get through?

By Jane Hu

Is Mother Dead? If you have to ask, then the answer is probably, functionally, yes. The first sentence of Vigdis Hjorth’s new novel of that name risks an answer: “I called Mum one evening.” No one picks up, so the response is inconclusive. But the consequences set off from this seemingly innocuous act take on outsized proportions as the narrative unfolds. 

The bulk of Hjorth’s novel revolves around the increasingly desperate ploys and pleas of her protagonist, a middle-aged artist named Johanna, to get in touch with her aging mother. As readers learn in the first few pages, Johanna has just returned to her native Norway after living decades abroad in America with her recently deceased husband Mark, raising their son John (whom her parents have never met and to whom they only send annual birthday cards) and honing her craft. Some 30 years earlier, she had abandoned law school and her Norwegian fiancé to pursue art in Utah, which initiated her family’s withdrawal. But it was only when Johanna started showing her art — sordid paintings frequently depicting menacing fathers and anguished mothers — back in Oslo, where her parents still lived, that their disapproval shriveled into disengagement. When Johanna fails to come home for her father’s funeral, she receives a text from her sister Ruth stating that her absence “had nearly killed her [mother].” Johanna promptly deletes the message. “I saw it as an excuse to reject me for good and blame the finality on me,” as she puts it. “The birthday letters to John ceased.” 

Johanna’s investigations begin reasonably enough: She looks her mother up and realizes that she lives a mere “four and a half kilometres from her”; she runs into old family friends and tries to glean information about her mother. She keeps calling, sends a few texts, and even mails a few letters — all of which are met with silence. But over the course of the book, Johanna’s attempts to make contact take on a more desperate and ultimately sinister texture. After her missives continue to go unanswered, Johanna decides one day to drive to her mother’s house. (What other choice does she have? Maybe her mother is dead?) On her first visit, she circles the block and eventually parks close — though “not so close that they will notice me” — and begins what can best be described as a stakeout. It quickly becomes a regular occurrence. By the end of the novel, the daughter’s attempts to reach her mother resemble textbook stalking — rummaging through her mother’s trash, trailing her mother around the city grave — eventually escalating in a fatal face to face encounter.

Hjorth is one of Norway’s leading contemporary writers, having published nearly 40 books. Is Mother Dead? is her third to appear in English, all translated by Charlotte Barslund. In mining the intimate details of family dynamics, she is frequently compared to Karl Ove Knausgaard, as both write virkelighetslitteratur, or “reality literature” — Norway’s term for something like “autofiction.” Yet in contrast to Knausgaard’s notoriety, Hjorth’s scandalous reputation remains largely limited to her Scandinavian context. 

A pink carnation

Here is both the backstory and plot to Hjorth’s controversial 2016 novel, Will and Testament: A woman publishes a novel featuring a protagonist, uncannily similar to herself, who was raped by her father as a young girl. Her parents — still alive and residing in the Scandinavian town where she grew up — are mortified when they find out. How dare their daughter malign them in public like this? What will the neighbors think? A media frenzy ensues, with local newspapers printing letters and emails from which the novel draws verbatim. The author’s sister, a lawyer, tries to set the record straight — not by taking legal action, but by penning her own counter-narrative in the form of a “revenge novel.” 

Did this really happen? Or is it fiction? Will and Testament precipitated a flurry of tabloid attention not only for its illicit plot details, but for how closely they seemed to coincide with real people and events. Allegedly semi-autobiographical, the novel is narrated by a 50-something magazine editor named Bergljot — a kind of author figure — whose estrangement from her family stems from the belated revelation of sexual abuse by her father. While Hjorth remains insistent on the book’s status as fiction, much of its reception has swirled around its relationship to reality. 

Is Mother Dead? reads like an artist’s statement in response to the reception surrounding Will and Testament — one that takes up the hand-wringing over the proprieties of authorial autonomy by adding yet another layer of aesthetic mediation. In Will and Testament, the protagonist was, like Hjorth, a middle-aged female writer, but here, she is a painter. What are the interpretive consequences of this shift in medium? Is Hjorth simply trying to reveal the absurdities of one-to-one autobiographical correlation in autofictional analysis? Or is making her protagonist a painter a bid for plausible deniability? And what might it mean that Johanna is not trying to reach her mother through her public art — which has already caused so much family ire — but through private texts and letters? “I use my words to create my image of you,” writes Johanna at one point. Does it even matter what — or indeed, if — her mother responds?

Is Mother Dead? is full of imaginative minutiae about Johanna’s internal world, all the prickly reservations and anxieties that motivate her every action. But as the novel proceeds, it becomes clearer that the only world we have access to is Johanna’s own — a myopia or claustrophobia that paradoxically makes her flagrantly unreliable narration feel all the more emotionally coherent (and dare I say sympathetic) if not always consistent. “We are closest to our own suffering,” she concedes at one point, before immediately drawing her mother back into her personal psychic drama: “But I suspect that mine is deeply linked to hers, which was so secret, I’ve always had a strong sense of it.” Yet if Johanna’s narcissism absorbs everything into her own private ouroboros, it’s also an interpretively productive one. In the event of silence, she manages to spin muteness into meaning. She construes, all on her own, her mother’s and sister’s reticence as in fact a secret message about their principles: “their harshness towards me, is something they want to show me, so what I think and feel must mean something to them.” If anything, their reliable lack of response only further drives Johanna’s desire to draw them out. “I invent Ruth, that’s what’s so frightening,” she admits, “and Ruth invents me, and we both invent Mum.” 

What begins as a form of mutual ghosting soon reveals itself to be a far more devastating cautionary tale about the problem of other people’s minds. Despite living in the same city, Johanna quickly admits that her mother and sister are still “both so far away […], instead I insert a couple of ghosts in the places where I imagine them to be, it’s creepy.” Yet in their absence, Johanna maintains a lively internal dialogue, presenting various hypotheses and justifications for why her mother is not responding, even if she might want to. “Ruth and Mum have entered into an agreement,” she decides, “possibly a tacit one, about neither of them having any contact with me, a pact Mum can’t break.” Johanna imagines that her sister censors their mother’s phone calls, perhaps “regularly check[ing] Mum’s post” and intercepting any mail from her. “I’m no minor character,” she tells herself, “They would both tear open a letter from me with trembling hands.” In other moments, Johanna is more circumspect — reflecting on the relationship between mothers and daughters as distinct “because the mother is a mirror in which the daughter sees her future self and the daughter is a mirror in which the mother sees her lost self, and so maybe Mum doesn’t want to see me so she won’t know what she has lost?” The excuses and self-justifications are endless — though it’s also Johanna’s commitment to providing sympathetic alternatives for why her mother remains silent that makes readers continue to root for her, however uneasily. 

The longer her mother withholds contact, the more Johanna feels compelled to produce a litany of scenarios for why she remains unresponsive. Johanna begins openly imagining her mother in an array of situations, to the point of projecting herself into her mother’s hypothetical perspective entirely. “Mum snoozes on her balcony,” Johanna envisions, “She enjoys sitting there in the late afternoon sunshine, she can see the sun’s red ball between the tall, still leafy trees.” If Johanna is a kind of autofictional surrogate for Hjorth herself, then she is one who has openly embraced her license for fictionalizing. What appears most compelling about Is Mother Dead? is not its potential overlap with the external world — the resonances between Hjorth and Johanna, or Johanna and Bergljot — but how Johanna has managed to dramatize the maddeningly narcissistic psychic drama of a woman on the verge without any input from outside voices. Here is Johanna again fantasizing about her mother’s banal, domestic life: “Mum gets up and turns on her coffee machine. While she waits for the coffee to percolate, she goes to the hallway, opens the door and picks up the newspaper from the doormat, she still subscribes to a print newspaper.” It’s less like the realist detail of autofiction than the reality effect gone rampant. 

A clay pot

At times, the novel reads like a distorted Socratic dialogue with oneself, as Hjorth’s narrator keeps asking herself rhetorical questions — like, “is mother dead?” — that not even her mother could really answer. What emerges is not so much an epistemological investigation, than an existential one. Johanna is working through something here that might be about a kind of generic mother, but in fact works better without the involvement of her own specific one. But over the course of the novel, this seeming cop-out — one that relies on aesthetic autonomy — appears increasingly to come true as readers slowly realize just how little Johanna knows or even remembers of her mother. In one scene, she stands in front of her mother’s building only to realize that she cannot identify her apartment number because she cannot remember her mother’s first name. 

Is Mother Dead? complicates the question of artistic intent by blowing up the potential absurdities of interpretation — and most damningly of Johanna’s own interpretations of her own mother. Not much happens in the novel. But that’s also the point. Instead, the narrative remains suspended in Johanna’s desperately searching mind — one that constantly projects outward with increasingly furious velocity. Rather than getting to the bottom of the story, of landing on the correct reading of its heroine, Is Mother Dead? puts not just readers, but most crucially Johanna herself, through the paces of ongoing self-interrogation. The result is a maddeningly uneven, uneasy work, with last-minute reveals and revelations that do not resolve the uncertainty so much as keep it in play.

If you encounter Is Mother Dead? as a stranger to Hjorth’s work, then you might share its protagonist’s haphazard narration of her escalating disorientation as a mirror of your own. But if you read it as a variation on a familiar theme — one where Hjorth, once again, stages a bad family romance — the unwieldy novel might disappoint or even frustrate you. But maybe, with repetition, Hjorth’s late work is also, in turning in on itself, becoming something even stranger. 

Jane Hu is a critic who lives in Los Angeles.

Illustrations by Chloe Scheffe. Original photographs courtesy of Doug Kelley / Unsplash (lillies), Edward Howell / Unsplash (carnation), Mhmd Sedky / Unspash (vase)