Johannes is the clearest character in Helga Flatland’s new novel. He is a fiddle player, a sob storyteller, a self-appointed pater familias in the heart of Telemark. And he has been dead for many years.
Nevertheless, it is Johannes who takes the lead in the lion’s share of the novel. His will and his stories twist like the roses on an antique hoarseness into the lives of descendants. Mercy to the one who tries to break out of John’s cobweb!
Heredity and environment
“Etterklang” is an apt title for a novel that could just as easily be called “Arv og miljø”. Because history repeats itself. It plays a role where you come from and which genes you pass on. At Flatland lurks a genetic complexity that is not always apparent.
I can say right away that this is a suspense story with not just one, but several disturbing disputes. Some more surprising than others.
As in previous novels, Flatland is topical: both the corona shutdown, metoo discussions and the trend of city people seeking to return to the so-called authentic life in the countryside have their natural place in Flatland’s seventh novel.
She has been concerned with town and country ever since
“Stay if you can. Travel if you must»
, for which she received Tarjei Vesaas’ debutante prize. It eventually became a trilogy about the young village boys who enlisted for service in Afghanistan. Not everyone made it home alive.
Helga Flatland likes to explore close and less close relationships in the family.
The game between people is well seen and steadily portrayed.
The recognizable discomfort of the confrontations has won her many readers.
When she also writes lines that could have been taken out of a TV series, her books have something immediately catchy about them.
But where is it that she wants, this time?
Who owns the stories?
As in many of his earlier books, Flatland allows multiple first-person narrators to speak. The first is the telemarking Johs., the grandson of Johannes. Together with his brother, he runs the farm, which has been in the family’s possession since the 17th century.
The other is Mathilde, a searching and unstable substitute teacher from Oslo. She moves into a dilapidated house in their yard after losing her job due to an affair with her eighteen-year-old student. She needs to get away, and what is more tempting, in a closed capital, than the thought of the tranquility of nature in the heart of Telemark?
Readers looking forward to collisions between rural traditions and urban debauchery will be in for a treat.
But instead of provoking laughter, the stereotypes become predictable and narrowing. The figures depicted are also rather typical.
But just when we think we have them, Flatland records unexpected reactions. It’s not said who we’ll be rooting for, or if we’ll be rooting for anyone at all. That’s good.
For me, the novel is primarily sad. Perhaps that is also Flatland’s purpose?
The story waves back and forth, depending on who is telling it. It’s about the gaze which looking.
In this sense, the novel can be read in many ways: as a tale of lasciviousness and infidelity, or an account of loneliness and longing for love.
It can also be interpreted as a darker song about the traditional male gaze on women: What actually happened to the girls who were taken from the mountain, as is sung about in the folk songs? And what is the moral in haystacks about women who would rather go into the waterfall than marry the man the family has chosen?
Here, Helga Flatland is anything but predictable.
Both the title “Etterklang” and the cover’s rose painting reflect tradition and culture. The author more than hints towards a center of gravity in the reading, and lays down guidelines that the fiddle is more than beautiful varnish. Nevertheless, I am in doubt for a long time, along the way, about where we are going.
In the end, there will be a lot of fate that must be put together. Fortunately, Helga Flatland leaves some pieces for the reader, so we can complete the puzzle ourselves.