The star of Norwegian author Hanne Orstavik’s arresting novel, “Love,” is 8-year-old Jon, a child who is both average and unusual: he loves snow and sausages and meeting new people, but he also has great anxiety about blinking, going so far as to cautiously wedge broken match sticks into his eye sockets to keep his eyelids from closing.
After dinner on a Wednesday night, the eve of Jon’s 9th birthday, he and his mother, Vibeke, go their separate ways: she to the library and the carnival, and he to sell raffle tickets door-to-door for the local sports club. Both their journeys take them out of the snow and into the warm domiciles of a variety of characters: an elderly sports legend, a carnival worker, an agreeable young girl with mittens. As mother and son move in and out of these new spaces, a sense dread begins to loom: will they find their way back to one another, or will their individual quests for love and acceptance pull them apart?
Set during the days of landline telephones and music videos, Ørstavik carefully blends the narratives so the words and actions of one character reflect or bleed into the other, demonstrating on a structural level how close Jon and his mother are emotionally, and at times physically, throughout the long winter’s night. Without spoiling the ending, it’s safe to say the constant reminders of connection – and near misses – make the ending all the more heartbreaking.
What could be a simple family story is instead filled with foreboding and anxiety, showcasing the marvels and dangers pulsating just below the surface in our everyday lives. Longing and hopefulness fills these brief pages, leaving readers with a sense of wonder for the average: how a day can be so filled with newness and potential, with menace and tragedy.