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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Susie Mesure

Is Mother Dead by Vigdis Hjorth – a daughter’s lament

Vigdis Hjorth at home outside Oslo, Norway.
Vigdis Hjorth at home outside Oslo, Norway. Photograph: Erik Norrud/The Observer

Last time the Norwegian author Vigdis Hjorth wrote about an estranged daughter, in her 2016 novel Will and Testament, she caused ructions with her family, who felt the novel was too autobiographical for comfort.

In that chilling book, which Charlotte Barslund translated into English in 2019, a row over inheritance prompts the main character, Bergljot, to confront her family about claims her father sexually abused her as a child. One of Hjorth’s sisters retaliated by writing her own novel, retelling the story from a different perspective, while Hjorth’s mother threatened to sue a Bergen theatre for its stage adaptation – moves that only heightened the novel’s autobiographical associations. Is Mother Dead also features a disaffected daughter who can’t resist reopening old wounds: it’s as if Bergljot – and Hjorth, who has had almost no contact with most of her family in years – has unfinished business.

Johanna, who was once a promising law student, abandoned her marriage, her family and her country almost 30 years ago to pursue love and a new vocation as an artist after falling for the American artist who taught her watercolour evening class. From her new base in Utah she is a success but her paintings, which explore motherhood, humiliate her parents. After Johanna fails to return to Norway for her father’s funeral, even the cursory text messages from her sister cease.

“She would contact me if Mum died. She has to, hasn’t she?” wonders Johanna, at the start of the book, in another convincing translation by Barslund. An invitation from an Oslo gallery for a retrospective exhibition has lured Johanna back to her homeland and back to her past. Now in her late 50s, Johanna obsesses over her mother. Where is she living? What does she look like? And does she really have scars on her wrist? She calls, repeatedly, but her mother never picks up. “In the absence of information, I invent her,” writes Hjorth. Johanna can’t believe her mother never thinks about her. “About what I think, about how I am, no matter how angry, how resentful she is, she must wonder because in spite of everything I am her nearly sixty-year-old child.”

The question of what children owe their parents and vice versa lies at the heart of this raw novel, which returns to many of the themes in Will and Testament. “If we knew, if we understood when we were young how crucial childhood is, no one would ever dare have children,” writes Hjorth, leaving the rest of the page blank. The white space underscores Johanna’s isolation; it’s an effective device and one Hjorth repeats often. “Surely parents have the lifelong obligation, unlike the child?” Johanna muses, adding that according to the Bible it’s the other way round – “but then again the Bible was written by parents to keep the offspring in place”.

This novel is more than just a lament for a lost parent, however. Hjorth also raises questions about the personal price of artistic freedom. Johanna’s triptych Child and Mother I, “where the mother stands in a corner wrapped up in herself with dark introverted eyes and the child is curled up in the other corner”, alienates her from her own mother but resonates with gallery-goers who see themselves in both images.

As childhood memories resurface, Johanna starts stalking her mother to obtain some answers; this injection of suspense, which comes with many of the trappings of Nordic noir (drunken detective, isolated cabin in the woods), keeps the narrative moving. The result is an absorbing study of inner turmoil that is unexpectedly gripping. With only four of her 20-odd novels in English translation, Is Mother Dead will captivate Hjorth’s growing anglophone fanbase, although newcomers may prefer to start with Will and Testament, which offers more insight and even greater drama.

• Is Mother Dead, translated by Charlotte Barslund, is published by Verso (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.

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