Brooding, melancholy heroes and heroines are a staple of Scandinavian film and literature going back many, many years. The names of the artists are almost too numerous to mention but not a few have buttressed impressive careers depicting characters who far from exhibiting an insouciant joie de vivre demonstrate rather its opposite.
To judge by the evidence of her 2001 novel ‘Stella Descending’ Linn Ullmann was well on the way to keeping the flag flying. At the very least she takes a leaf out of the book in her portrayal of individuals not exactly content in the skins God has blessed them with, people for whom the mere fact of existence is a trial that ideally cannot pass soon enough. There are individual reasons for this but, yes, it may be something inescapable to the extent that it is inherent in the blood of those born in the wilds of northern Europe.
Stella’s literal descent occurs early in the piece. As she is, decidedly, the warmest and most multi-dimensional among a cold lot this would be a pity but for the fact that she comes to life in the first person recollections of her near and dear, principally her ageing, irascible friend Axel. Then, in the second part of the novel, she is allowed considerable space to speak for herself.
The tag team first person narration is effective, allowing great intimacy as we inhabit the minds and worlds of Stella herself, Axel, a police special investigator (and through her Stella’s enigmatic husband Martin), Stella’s daughter from a previous relationship Amanda and even some of the witnesses to Stella’s fall from a rooftop.
Whether Martin tried to save his wife or contributed to her fall is in its way beside the point. But the incident serves as the port of entry into a novel about worlds colliding and the inability of people to tell each other – even those to whom they are closest – what’s really in their hearts. A curse, alas, that can pass from generation to generation like an unrequited family feud.