Biblibio, who is running Women in Translation Month, last week, posted an interesting article entitled “Are we all reading the same thing?”
“The Blue Room” is probably one of those books. Being a recent release by an independent publisher and one who supports Women in Translation, it was always going to be a prime candidate for reviews. Time for me to add my thoughts to the mix – and I’m possibly off on a tangent here, I have a different take than most….
The original Norwegian title is ‘Like sant som jeg er virkelig” (literally translated as “As true as I really am”), and personally I think this is a more apt title, however the English title reveals a theme too.
So why “The Blue Room”? This is the scene for our novel, a place where our narrator, Johanne, is trapped. Instead of travelling to America with her recent love Ivar, Johanne is reviewing her actions up until this moment where her “armpits are damp” and her “hands are cold and dry”.
I get up and go back to the window, the sheet covering me. The sky is so light and open. My exercises haven’t has the least effect. I don’t understand people who swear by body therapies, who seem happy to stretch and pummel and rub, believing these activities offer a path to inner understanding. Ultimately it is through thought that we discriminate or make decisions. The physical may act as a signpost, but the mind does the work and passes judgement. I run my fingers along the window ledge; the paintwork is flaking, I’ve told Mum that we ought to keep it in good repair, scrape and paint it, but nothing has happened so far. There are bubbles, tiny blisters, here and there. How do we recognize when something starts. I think of the beginnings of various things in my life: my studies, my desire to be a psychologist, this thing with Ivar, my connection with God. Only in retrospect does a starting point become clear, something I can pin down to a particular book read at a certain moment, the light on those trees on that day, glimpsing a brown dog at a particular spot, the sound of the church bells ringing. But the fact is, 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 at the starting point – it wasn’t me. I prefer to think the opposite. To think of myself as guilty of everything, thus giving me a responsibility and a duty to change. Everything should be as new.
Johanne’s blue room is “so clear and pure”, she is “locked” into a place where she can escape the consequences of her sin, where she can rid herself of the torment of her actions, a place where she can retreat to clarity and purity.
Each of us is born with tendencies or traits that drive us to seek certain stimuli, and these, in turn, lead us on further, reinforcing the original traits which caused us to make our initial choices.
The theme of “blue” throughout the novel is prominent. Johanne takes “Mum” (note upper case?) to see the Jean-Jacques Beineix film “Betty Blue 37.2 le matin”. She says she is Betty Blue, tempestuous, who throws everything out of the window. This connection alone could give me a theme to write about the mental instability of Betty, her collapse and admission to a mental institution after finding she is not pregnant (37.2 degrees being the normal morning temperature of a pregnant woman). We do have Johanne studying psychology, questioning her own mental abilities…
Johanne writes in blue notebooks:
Mum says she has a deep respect for other people’s privacy and the she’d never look, for example, through the blue hard-backed Chinese books I fill with my notes. A voice lives between their pages, my very own conversation partner, a being that has no independent existence, but which emerges in what I write, in the way I write, A voice that really cares about me, that listens.
We also have visions of an old blue painted boor, behind which bondage rituals occur.
Everything is not alright, serene and calm of Johanne’s retreat (her blue room) need to be revisited, to restore tranquillity, security, and orderliness. Johanne has her whole life planned out, to such an extent she finds people who arrive to study at the reading room after 9am as “daring”.
Outside of this monologue, where Johanne is trapped into confronting her sexual fantasies, her daring, her actions that recall original sin, we have a story of a mother/daughter relationship not often seen in literature. This is one of the delights of Women in Translation Month as I can assure you male writers rarely (if at all) express similar openness when discussing father/son relationships.
This is a novel with deep psychological connections, including dream sequences, unexplained lower back pain, guilt, fear, manipulation, and as the book unfolds we have sections where Johanne’s senses become heightened. I know it is an oft quotes phrase “best selling psychological thriller” when the marketing people don’t even know what that really means, however in the case of Peirene Press and this “Coming of Age” series, this work does have a distinct psychological edge.
Is Johanne locked in her room by her mother? Is she locking herself in her own “room” of clarity and purity? This is no “Room” (the Booker Prize shortlisted novel by Emma Donoghue), the bestselling novel where Jack and Ma are trapped in a single locked Room. Whilst maternal love may have been the theme there, it is a different, and dare I say a more mature, approach here by Hanne Orstavik.
Another wonderful work by Peirene Press, I’d love to subscribe to their works, however the postage package to Australia makes it an unrealistically costly proposition.