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Modern Nordic Literature 101
Linn Ullmann's Stella Descending
by Tony DuShane on Nov 17, 2004
Stella fell nine stories from a rooftop in Oslo. Did she kill herself? Did her husband push her?
This is the beginning of Stella Descending, Norwegian writer Linn Ullmann's latest book. The mystery unfolds as well as Stella's passions, regrets and the story of what brought her to the rooftop on the night of her death.
Ullmann writes the book from a few different narratives, most of who are preparing for Stella's funeral. Amanda, Stella's oldest daughter, narrates much of the beginning of the book. She feels her stepfather pushed Stella and she's scared of him. She also takes it upon herself to explain to her younger sister exactly what happened to their mother.
Amanda: "I tell her Mamma fell off a roof. Listen, Bee, I say. Mamma fell of a roof, Mamma's falling still. She falls and falls and never hits the ground. That's what we say. We say that Mamma is falling little by little, day by day, kind of in bits: first a finger, then an eye, and then a knee, and then a foot, then a toe, and then another toe. It takes longer that way. Not all of Mamma at once, crash-band-wallop onto the ground."
While fifteen-year-old Amanda assumes a motherly role to her half-sister immediately after her mother's death, she is quite determined to leave and attempt to make a go of it out on her own.
Axel is an elderly man with whom Stella developed a long relationship. She cared for him while he was in the hospital and visited him once a week upon his release. Their relationship gave Stella the chance to open up to someone like she wasn't opening up to others in her life. And for Axel, she's all he has.
Much of Axel's narration deals with his obsessive behavior in getting ready for the funeral, leaving his clothes out the night before, deciding when he should take his bath, etc. He's a bit of a shut-in who opens his thought processes to the reader.
Axel: "I don't fear death. I learned early on from my father that the right to die by one's own hand is the most fundamental of human freedoms. There's always a way out."
At times, his fondness for Stella almost brought me to tears.
Corinne, a police officer who has a special knack when it comes to interrogation, interviews Martin, Stella's husband and a possible murder suspect. Martin reveals the demons lurking in his mind regarding a relationship that seemed to be "happy" and "ok" to onlookers.
In the third part of the novel, by which time we're completely enamoured with the beautiful Stella, she narrates the story of her relationship with her husband and flashes back to her childhood and her mother.
Stella: "In my room I have a closet in which I hide stained sheets, pantyhose, and panties. I know Mamma thinks I'm disgusting, but I don't want her to know how disgusting. Eventually the closet is so full I can't close the door properly, and at night, when I'm in bed, I can see the dark pile behind the door I cannot close threatening to spill out into the room."
Stella Descending was a huge hit in Norway and the English translation will be released August 18. This is Linn Ullmann's second novel. Her first novel Before You Sleep was published in 1998 in Norwegian and later translated into English.
The character's concern about making everything appear to be okay when the emotional bubble is ready to burst is a theme that comes up often in Nordic literature and film. Throughout, Ullmann's writing flows like music and her characters remain intriguing, whether we like them or not.
by Linn Ullmann
Translated from Norwegian by Barbara Haveland
Knopf; ISBN: 0375414991
Hardcover, 256 pages (August 2003)
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by Tony DuShane on Nov 17, 2004