The Blue Room – Hanne Ørstavik (Translated by Deborah Dawkin)

Johanne wakes up to find that she is locked in her bedroom, the blue room of the novel’s title. She has recently begun a relationship with a man named Ivar and she should be on her way to meet him at the airport and travel to America. However, she has no way out of the room until her mum returns from work, so she relates the story of how she met Ivar and how their relationship has progressed.

It becomes evident very early in the book that two things are going to become prevalent themes: religion and the body. Within two pages, Johanne has stopped banging on the walls and screaming to be let out:

I’ve sent up a prayer that everything will be all right. I’ve decided to leave it to God, to put my fate in his hands.

What follows is a description of her actions immediately afterwards:

I lie…on my back…The trick is to relax so much that the small of your back touches the floor…

and then both literally and metaphorical references to the body as she describes her first meeting with Ivar:

He looked at me, and it felt as though he’d poked me in the stomach with a sharp stick.

I was sweating, and my skirt was dripping and clinging to my legs.

…the tears were flowing…as if I had a plastic bag in my chest filled with water.

My whole forehead was throbbing.

 

Despite this focus, it leaves the reader unprepared for the abrupt shift in tone in the third chapter:

Poor Mum, she deserves some peace, and to relax. I close my eyes. There’s an Asian girl chained to the bed. Twelve years old. It is an iron bed with rails and there are bars at the window. A fat sweaty man comes in once an hour. He takes off his shorts and shirt, and she has to do whatever he wants.

This moments where Johanne fantasises about brutal sexual and violent events happen several times throughout the book. The swiftness with which they come about feels like a punch in the face to the reader; they are an insight into the psyche of a young woman who has been shaped by her relationship with god and with her mother.

At the start of the second chapter, Johanne considers beginnings, coming to the conclusion:

…there are no true beginnings, everything connects. And this continual interconnectedness constitutes original sin. But what do we do with the guilt? Being ignorant of the moment things begin, we can repeatedly deny guilt, pointing even further back to a previous event as the starting point – it wasn’t me. I prefer to think of myself as guilty of everything, thus giving me a responsibility and a duty to change.

This is further complicated by the mother/daughter relationship which she seems unable to analyse, perhaps due to their closeness, ‘we belong together like two clasped hands’. However, this link between them is as destructive as her relationship with God. Her mother is overbearing, controlling and hypocritical. There are a number of scenes shared between the two of them that I found disturbing for a range of reasons. The complex nature of their relationship seems to be the fundamental element of the novel and the switches between the mother overtly exerting control and Johanne displaying elements of control that are obviously subconsciously influenced by her mother lead us to question who has actually locked her in the blue room and whether the room is literal or metaphorical.

The Blue Room is a powerful and disturbing exploration of the elements that can influence the psyche of young females. It’s well written and thought provoking but not for the faint-hearted.

 

Thanks to Peirene Press for the review copy.

0 thoughts on “The Blue Room – Hanne Ørstavik (Translated by Deborah Dawkin)

  1. Pingback: The Blue Room by Hanne Ørstavik, tr. by Deborah Dawkin | JacquiWine's Journal

  2. Brilliant review, Naomi. That’s an excellent point about the references to Johanne’s body – I couldn’t quite work out what was happening there, but I noticed several references to pain as the story progressed. A very thought-provoking book – I’d love to talk to you about it sometime!

  3. Pingback: The Blue Room by Hanne Orstavik (trans. Deborah Dawkin) | These Little Words