The Blue Room (1999) – Hanne ØRSTAVIK

The Peirene machine continues, and this time, they’ve chosen a young Norwegian novelist, Hanne Ørstavik. The back flap says that one of her works was voted one of the best Norwegian novels of the past 25 years. The Blue Room isn’t that work, but if Peirene chose to have it translated, I guess it must be good.

Johanne lives a simple life. She studies psychology at university, goes to church every Sunday, and lives with her mother in a house in Oslo. Into this idyllic life, though, comes a boy. And when her mother finds out about Ivar, Johanne’s life will be changed forever. This is a novel about female sexuality, and about what happens when said sexuality blossoms in a young woman not used to being seen as anything other than innocent and pure.

The inherent tension in Johanne’s views on sex and sexuality are gently teased out by Ørstavik. On the one hand, she has spent her life raised as a good Christian, along with her mother and good friend Karin. This upbringing has ensured she has become this good student, unconcerned with boys and other such distractions. She is more concerned with matters of the mind—she studies psychology to better understand those around her.

On the other hand, though, is perhaps a more instinctive sense. She wants desperately to sleep with Ivar, and every now and then, Johanne’s self-control will fall away and she has flashes of a sex life she didn’t think she would ever want. But now that, finally, there is an outlet for them, she finds herself drawn to the act of sex,

As is so often the case with young relationships, boundaries between physical lust and emotional longing are blurred, and when Ivar suggests she comes with him to America for six weeks, she cautiously accepts. Perhaps it is not the most sensible life choice (at this stage, she and Ivar have only been seeing each other for a few weeks), but she is young, and the whole point of youth is to make mistakes. The relationship may not have lasted, but Johanne is never given the chance to find out.

Having recently read Eimear McBride’s excellent debut, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, ideas around the construction and representation of the sexuality of young women were still floating around my head when I got around to reading The Blue Room. By the end, I knew I wanted to see McBride and Ørstavik in the same room (the colour is unimportant).

While McBride celebrates the sexual awakening of her unnamed narrator, she is also acutely aware of the friction this can cause in a fairly conservative, religious society. Ørstavik is perhaps less celebratory in her tone, but she is also acutely aware of the reactions of those around her when young women discover a part of life that is often frowned upon.

Both novels, too, deal with the reactions of mothers to their daughter’s changes. Though McBride’s mother is full of fire and brimstone, in many ways, Ørstavik’s is the more terrifying. Discontent with her daughter’s choice, she simply locks her in a room for 24 hours, preventing her from leaving. It’s psychological warfare on a grand scale, and the final scene is a killer. It seems that Ørstavik wants her protagonist to have a life where she is able to enjoy every part of herself, but she can’t find a way in a culture that is deeply conservative.

It takes some time for The Blue Room to warm up, but once it does, it becomes rapidly clear that Hanne Ørstavik is a novelist not content to bang her readers over the head with metaphors and imagery. This novel is subtle, and deceptively simple, but it is also an excellent interrogation of female sexuality, and the societal constraints placed on the women who dare to escape.

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