In some ways the second novel from Norwegian author Gaute Heivoll is like his remarkable debut work, “Before I Burn.” Both follow the course of one rural Norwegian family as they navigate an extraordinary event; both involve a narrator looking back. But where his first novel centered on one terrifying month, Heivoll’s newest work, “Across the China Sea,” takes the long view of an inciting incident, encompassing not just a month or a year but 50 years in the life of one family, showcasing the before, the during and the after.
The result is a beautiful rumination on the ties that bind us as family, as well as the delicate line between sanity and madness.
What happens is this: a man and a woman marry and decide to leave their nursing careers and start a care facility for the mentally disabled in a small parish in southern Norway, about 40 kilometers from the coast. Here, with two children of their own, they mind and live with their charges: three adult men and a family of five siblings who had previously lived in such deplorable conditions a child welfare agent likened them to animals.
“Across the China Sea” opens with the son returning to the house years later, after his parents have died and their charges, who the narrator comes to regard as family, have died or moved away. As he rummages through drawers and cabinets, his memories roll “slowly like a film in the darkness overhead; everything I thought I’d forgotten, everything I didn’t think I had noticed, everything I did in fact remember.” These moments form a striking patchwork story of a childhood, one filled with tragedy, wonder, and love beyond language and sanity.
Beautifully structured and filled with heartfelt prose, “Across the China Sea” is Heivoll’s graceful second act.