Translated by Rosie Hedger.
I was utterly bowled over by this beautiful examination of life, death and how ordinary lives can be the most extraordinary of all. Our narrator, Anne, unexpectedly finds herself contemplating the end of her life, and so much sooner than expected, when she faces a diagnosis of colon cancer. Her husband Gustav has been hovering between two states for a number of years after several strokes slowly incapacitated him. His permanent disabilities started with paralysis of one of his arms and ending with all limbs affected and personality changes that are the hardest to cope with. With a heavy heart Anne has allowed their GP and hospital team to make the decision that Gustav should be placed in a nursing home. There’s a sense in which Anne had felt immune from further tragedy, as if Gustav had paid the price for them all. Meanwhile, we also meet Anne’s two grown-up children, Magnus and Sigrid. Sigrid is our second narrator and through her story we can see Anne in a different light, as a mother. However, we also see Sigrid as a mother and it’s on these relationships the book focuses; those complex emotions and connections between mothers and daughters.
Anne’s life has been a difficult and hard-working one. There’s been the farm she kept with Gustav in an isolated region of Norway, her job as teacher, the role of carer for Gustav, and her role as mother. From the outside looking in she’s an amazingly strong woman for whom fate has dealt a very rough hand. From the inside she sees herself as almost subsumed by the needs of other people, particularly Gustav, but has done the best job she could in very difficult circumstances. However, from Sigrid’s perspective, she allowed herself to be subsumed by Gustav’s needs at the expense of her children. Sigrid feels that her father listened to her, they would play records together from his vinyl collection and he took time to understand her. She feels her mother is distant at best and at worst, neglectful and selfish. We also see Sigrid’s own mothering skills, dealing with her teenage daughter Mia and the sudden return of Mia’s biological father Jens. The author takes us back to Sigrid’s rebellious teenage years, her pregnancy at 19 and Jens’s abandonment of her just before the Mia’s birth.
The author cleverly shows us how mother and daughter can see the same incident very differently. In a conversation about teaching in Norwegian in schools, Sigrid suddenly bursts out with:
‘I was so cold, freezing all through primary school, do you know what it was like, sitting through a whole day in class with wet socks, ice cold, not daring to take them off for fear someone might see?’
Anne is a bit stunned, but relates back to everything that was on her plate at the time. She was looking after Gustav, constantly making sacrifices:
‘You’re hardly the true victim in all this, I told her in as measured a tone as I could muster. She said nothing, waited a few seconds before getting up and leaving. I woke that night and remembered at least one occasion when Sigrid had been at high school and I had urged her to wear her boots, she had flown into a rage with me, stormed out the door and into the icy rain in her trainers and denim jacket’.
This is how mother and daughter speak to each other, in cross words with even more crossed wires, and bogged down with specifics. The overarching truth neither wishes to acknowledge is that Sigrid’s memories of her father are in a nostalgic past before she was seven years old. He will never grow old. He took up so much of her mother’s time that both Magnus and Sigrid fended for themselves on occasion. I felt so sad for Sigrid that her family forgot her birthday once or twice. However I also felt sad for Anne, who was dealt a rough hand in life and now has another in death. The time she’s had for herself is minimal, and the retirement she expected with her loving husband has been stripped away. There’s a deep sense of loss in Anne, from the family life she expected, her marriage, loss of a lover and of a warm, loving relationship with her daughter. She thinks back to those times she had supported Sigrid which don’t get mentioned. After Jens left, Anne collected a 19 year old Sigrid and took her back home for some much needed TLC and to have help after the birth. Sigrid isn’t angry with her Dad, she can’t be because he’s sick, so her anger is saved for Anne who for several years chose Gustav’s needs above those of her children.
Then, in turn, Sigrid is at crossed purposes with her own daughter. Jens has returned after sixteen years and is now the object of Mia’s affections. Sigrid feels for her partner Aslak, who has been there for both of them, since Mia was a small baby. She thinks she’s been a great Mum to Mia, never shirking responsibility or neglecting them. However, there are times Mia has felt stifled and there’s a way in which Sigrid’s need to control everything feels like anxiety to others. The author manages to convey how these parenting choices feel to the daughter. There are times when intention and result just miss each other by a hair’s breadth and I found this incredibly moving. It made me think about how I view my own mother and where I’ve been harsh in my assessment of her, but others might view things with more empathy. I found it interesting in light of her accusations about Anne’s parenting, that Sigrid feels it is Mia at fault in their misunderstandings. Mia’s reply is a real piece of wisdom and could have come from a therapist:
‘Isn’t it interesting how everyone else is always letting you down Mum?’
Helga Flatland writes so beautifully, that I was in the events of the book immediately and then carried into the very heart of this one ordinary family. She is a master at creating tension between people, finding those spaces between a conversation’s intent and how it’s received by the other person. I was desperately hoping for some sort of understanding between mother and daughter, before it was too late. I felt Sigrid needed that reconciliation even more than Anne. I loved the atmospheric feel of the country with its crispness underfoot, constant dusting of snow and all the hearty foods Anne mentions from elk to mutton, slow cooked and filling the house with delicious meaty casserole smells. I also loved the way she conveyed the closeness of a couple who live together, the way you know how their skin smells or what they’re going to say before they say it. I was so moved by Anne’s predicament of a much loved partner leaving you by slow degrees and how she would simply lie on the mattress next to Gustav hoping to regain some of that comfort she would get from his body. Most of all, her depiction of illness and deterioration is the best I’ve ever read and I’ve read a lot. Small losses, like medication changing the way the way someone smells, are actually huge because it takes them from the familiar to a complete stranger. She explores how illness suddenly demotes you from being in control of the smallest things in your life, like what you will eat for dinner or whether people will stay in your house. Who decides whether you need to be looked after and how? The way your body doesn’t belong to you anymore, or even feel and look like yours. People who once saw us as sexual beings, might cease to see us that way. Our bodies become a no-man’s land that people will fight and negotiate over, but rarely ask what we think, feel or need. This made the book incredibly moving, honest and real. This small family story is exquisite and truly special. You simply must read it.
Meet The Author
Helga Flatland is already one of Norway’s most awarded and widely read authors. Born in Telemark, Norway, in 1984, she made her literary debut in 2010 with the novel Stay If You Can, Leave If You Must, for which she was awarded the Tarjei Vesaas’ First Book Prize. She has written four novels and a children’s book and has won several other literary awards.
Her fifth novel, A Modern Family (her first English translation), was published to wide acclaim in Norway in August 2017, and was a number-one bestseller. The rights have subsequently been sold across Europe and the novel has sold more than 100,000 copies. One Last Time was published in Norway in 2020, where it topped the bestseller lists, and was shortlisted for the Norwegian Booksellers Award.