by Janice Wilder
A friend recommended this book to me. She was reading it and loving it, and it sounded like something that would be right up my alley—or aisle. You may know this title through the play at the Belvoir, or the Oscar-nominated film—as I did—but I hadn’t known there was a book. The book in question is Elling by Norwegian author Ingvar Ambjørnsen. My friend was right. I loved it. The book tells the story of Elling and his friend Kjell. They share a flat in Oslo after leaving, as Elling puts it, ‘an exclusive country retreat’. But in reality a they’ve both just left a kind of rehabilitation centre. Elling, who is the narrator of the story, was recovering from a breakdown which followed the death of his mother. He and Kjell became friends while in the institution, and Social Services have found a flat for them—with their caseworker, Frank, close at hand to help them adjust. They learn to shop, cook, use the telephone and answer the door. At first, it doesn’t go well, but, bit by bit, the pair start adventuring out, beginning with a dinner at the local diner, attending a poetry reading and a visit to the famous park with life-size statues of naked men and women—which Kjell, who has a bit of a thing about sex, particularly enjoys. Elling, the slightly more delicate of the pair, is quite concerned when Kjell gets involved with the single pregnant woman upstairs, but decides, embracing the new character he has become, to accept whatever comes his way. This a wonderful book, with some laugh out-loud episodes, but more often quiet smiles at its gentle satire. Elling and Kjell are very real characters—I’m sure I have met them along my life’s journey.
I know I wrote about a Louise Welsh book last month, but, having finally discovered her it was a treat to find out she has a new book coming in August—and it is so good I need to talk about it now. The Girl on the Stairs is set in Berlin, where Jane has gone to live with her rich banker partner, Petra. Jane is six months pregnant, contentedly looking forward to the birth. However, Petra’s job demands long days and the occasional time away. So, while Jane is initially excited about living in a new city, with a new language, new streets and new people to explore, this excitement fades as she finds that being alone all day, pregnant and isolated, the walls start to close in. Bored and lonely—but not brave enough to venture very far from the flat—Jane’s focus narrows to the nearby churchyard, and a derelict building to the back of her flat. Sometimes in this dark, gloomy building, a light flickers and a shadow is seen on the stairs. Jane is intrigued, and looking for something to fill her long days she has a go at trying to find out what is going on. At the same time she meets and tries to befriend Anna—a young girl that she has seen in the churchyard. When Jane first sees her, Anna is heavily made up, wearing grown-up clothes and high heels. At their next meeting Anna is with Alban Mann, her father, and she no longer has make-up on her face, and has lost the high heels. It turns out that gynaecologist Alban and Anna live in the flat next door to Jane and Petra. Jane becomes convinced that something is wrong, both with her neighbours and in the deserted block next door. Her suspicions get deeper the more involved she becomes with Anna and the strange goings in with the building next door. While Petra is away on a business trip, things really fall apart, and Jane is put in a very dangerous situation—a haunting, atmospheric story with my favourite mix of paranoia, fear, dark secrets and your past catching up with you!
What I am reading next:
Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson. A book about growing-up in the 1980s New York—music, drugs…... .
The new Andrea Camilleri, The Age Of Doubt. Montalbano befriends a woman when they are stuck in a traffic jam. Her story of meeting her aunt’s boat doesn’t ring true and his suspicions are aroused.
Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver. This is not due for release until the end of the year, but I cannot recommend it highly enough. It is a wonderful story of climate change, deforestation, but ultimately of hope. More next month. Janice Wilder