Shocked and disbelieving, the siblings try to come to terms with their parents’ decision as it echoes through the homes they have built for themselves, and forces them to reconstruct the shared narrative of their childhood and family history…
A slight diversion from my normal crime fare in the shape of this one, A Modern Family from Helga Flatland, dubbed the Norwegian Anne Tyler. The machinations of family life has been a rich seam for Scandinavian fiction and film for many years, instantly bringing to mind Festen and the Danish TV series The Legacy, both structured around the pressure points that arise, and relationships that become strained in families. Although the events of Flatland are probably less driven by greed and competitiveness, Flatland constructs a story that really delves beneath the veneer of this particular family, and the seismic implications of an unexpected announcement…
I think it’s fair to say that this is a book driven by character, as this nuclear family of mother and father, their two daughters, Liv and Ellen and their son, Hakon, their respective partners, and their children are put so much under the microscope, after the announcement that their parents, in their twilight years, are seeking a divorce. What Flatland does is raise this book above a rather humdrum premise, to an incisive and probing exploration of family life; what makes them tick, the underlying alliances, the individual members’ weaknesses, strengths and their own personal issues. Speaking from the viewpoint of an only child from a small family, I found this particularly interesting, never having to navigate the general stresses that this particular family seem to have in droves!
As the story unfolds between the split narratives of Liv, Ellen and Hakon, we not only bear witness to their own assimilation of the breakdown of their parents’ marriage, but also a detailed insight into their own lives with issues of infertility, marital strain, fear of commitment and so on, swirling around the central motif of the unsettling effect of their parents’ break up. Flatland also pays particular attention to the changing dynamics of the relationship between Liv, Ellen and Hakon themselves, as in the wake of their parents proceeding boldly on the course of their new lives untethered to each other, it seems that their children find the whole scenario just a tad more difficult to cope with themselves. In fact, as the story progresses my admiration for their parents’ growing fearless attitude was one of the highlights of the book. As Liv and Ellen get sucked into a increasingly gloomy narrative arising from the emotional fissures in their lives, and Hakon, who comes across as a teenager in adult clothing, seems entirely confused by how the whole world of relationships works, it serves to put them on a different emotional plain entirely to their increasingly stoical and pragmatic parents.
Although A Modern Family obviously has its foundations firmly rooted in this family unit, Flatland also punctuates the book with some interesting observations on a whole array of subjects from publishing to politics, from green issues to female equality, some of which brought a wry smile to this reader, as the characters mount their soapboxes and let fly with their observations. I think this is done extremely well, rooting the reader in a fixed space and time in the characters’ lives, but also adhering to the Scandinavian reputation, both in fiction and crime, of giving their readers a broader and balanced view of the world against which their narratives play out, and I enjoyed Flatland’s realisation of this very much. I will confess that this is not normally the type of book I would naturally seek out, but I did enjoy this modern saga of a family in a period of change, crisis and renewal, and the points of stress, high emotion and the process of acceptance that Flatland explores within her characters. Recommended.
(With thanks to Orenda Books for the ARC)
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