Female characters tend not to win literary awards. This according to data collected by novelist Nicola Griffith (who happens to have written one of my favourite books of all time, Hild). I don’t know if Sarah Hall (who happens to be one of my favourite authors of all time) knew this when she said, in a 2017 interview, that it would be a good idea to have an award specifically for female characters, but the two things are clearly connected. We need more female characters, more diverse female characters, more complex female characters. I actually saw Sarah Hall in conversation with Philip Langeskov about a month ago at the UEA Spring Literary Festival, and they briefly touched on the idea for this award, and I remember coming away from the event making a list of all the characters I’d nominate from my past year’s reading, and wondering whether there should be a single award for Best Overall Female Character, or whether there should be multiple categories. Since part of the point of this award would be to encourage authors to write more diverse female characters, I think there should be multiple categories. But what would those categories be based on? Genre? Format? Character “types”? I could write more about this, but the main thing I’d like to say here is that, as of last week, I have a new character I’d like to nominate: Vibeke, from Hanne Ørstavik’s Love.
Vibeke is one of two point-of-view characters in the novel, alongside her eight-year-old son Jon. The action takes place over a single winter’s night in a small town in Norway. Jon is out by himself, selling raffle tickets, meeting strangers. The next day will be his ninth birthday, and he thinks his mother’s at home making him a cake and wrapping up that train set he wants. However, Vibeke is also out, on an improvised date with a man she’s just met, a fairground worker named Tom. She’s forgotten that it’s Jon’s birthday tomorrow, and she thinks he‘s at home, safe, sleeping in his bed. The perspective shifts frequently and abruptly from Vibeke to Jon and back again, often from one paragraph to the next, and the resulting disorienting effect contributes to the story’s mounting tension and dread. Will something bad happen to Jon? Will something bad happen to Vibeke? To both of them? Will it be murder, kidnapping, being run over by a car, getting lost and dying of exposure? Or is this one of those novels where you think something horrible’s going to happen, but nothing does? I’m not going to give out any spoilers, because I mostly want to talk about Vibeke, but also because this is one of those novels that benefits particularly from the reader having no clue as to what may happen next. In fact, at least on my first go-through, I experienced the novel like one of those subtler, arty-er horror films, more atmospheric than gory: I felt my heartbeat speed up at particularly ominous encounters, I almost couldn’t handle it when the sudden perspective shifts created mini-cliffhangers, and I found solace in the few apparent bubbles of safety.
On my second read-through, I decided to focus all my energy on figuring out Vibeke. As it happens, I read Love immediately after two other very short novels about a mother and her child: Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream (translated by Megan McDowell) and Ariana Harwicz’s Die, My Love (translated by Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff). Fever Dream‘s Amanda is constantly aware of what she calls “rescue distance”: the distance she’d have to cross to reach her daughter were her daughter to suddenly be in danger. Die My Love‘s unnamed (I think) narrator is very much aware of her failures as a mother: she didn’t even want her son, and now she resents having to sacrifice so much of her time to him. In Love, few words are better suited to Vibeke than unaware: she’s unaware of her son’s birthday and his whereabouts, of course, but she’s also unaware of the effects her words have on people (she says a number of quite cringe-worthy things to her date without realising how cringe-worthy they are) and what people think of her (mostly complimentary things, she imagines, but there are several clues that this is not the case), though she is dimly aware of her own general lack of awareness (Jon says that she sometimes compares herself to a “doddering old professor”).
But the title of this novel is Love. In one of the best scenes from Greta Gerwig’s wonderful film Lady Bird, the protagonist and an elderly nun have the following exchange:
Sister Sarah Joan: You clearly love Sacramento.
Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson: (surprised, as she frequently expresses contempt for her hometown) I do?
Sister Sarah Joan: You write about Sacramento so affectionately and with such care.
‘Lady Bird’: I was just describing it.
Sister Sarah Joan: Well it comes across as love.
‘Lady Bird’: Sure, I guess I pay attention.
Sister Sarah Joan: Don’t you think maybe they are the same thing? Love and attention?
If Sister Sarah Joan (/Greta Gerwig) is right, then perhaps Vibeke doesn’t love Jon. Perhaps she is even incapable of feeling love for other people, full stop, because there’s something in her that prevents her from giving people her full attention. But—I don’t know. Perhaps I would have more readily subscribed to this view after my first read-through, in which I mostly saw Vibeke as a selfish, self-absorbed idiot. A “bad mother”. After my second read-through, however, I’m inclined to feel more sympathy towards her. Ørstavik herself is a single mother (which she talks about in this interview). And there are so many moments in which Vibeke’s own delusional perceptions of herself and the world around her collide painfully, heartbreakingly, with reality, and it’s unclear whether she even registers this—and whether it’s more tragic to think that she does or to think that she doesn’t. (Those who have read the book and have a copy at hand: I found page 103 particularly devastating.) I don’t know if Vibeke is capable of giving someone her full and undistracted love, but she clearly aches for love herself, for a man, for a friend.
I tried to piece together Vibeke’s backstory, but couldn’t find much, other than the fact that she had Jon when she was very young and “not ready” (to start a family? to commit to a husband?), that Jon had only received “things he needed” for his previous birthday but that he could “dream big” for his ninth, and that it’s only been four months since they moved to the small town where they live now. There’s a sense that things may have been hard for Vibeke and Jon until recently, and that this new town, this new life, and this new job that Vibeke seems to find exciting (working as an arts and culture councillor) have all filled her with a renewed sense of optimism, a novel sense of contentment, and maybe that’s why her head’s in the clouds—because she thinks she doesn’t have to worry anymore. To pay attention anymore. And Jon is growing! He’s almost nine! He can start looking after himself now, surely? Except, of course, maybe he can’t. (Again, no spoilers.)
I could go on. And it’s precisely because I could go on that I’d nominate Vibeke for this hypothetical “Griffith-Hall” Award for Best Female Character: because she opens up so many difficult questions about love, about motherhood, about empathy, and also, potentially, what it means when we “like” a fictional character in a novel and when we “hate” them, and why we like some characters and not others, and whether we tend to dislike certain types of characters more than others, and what that might mean. I discovered this book thanks to the Asymptote Book Club, and I hope people who stumble upon this thing I’ve written suggest Love for their own book clubs—the resulting discussion will be fascinating, I promise.
PS – I normally like to write at least a paragraph about the translation, because I think it’s important to pay attention to the translator’s work, but, in this case, I focus so closely on Vibeke that a separate paragraph about Martin Aitken’s work would feel tacked on. To compensate, and to assuage my own feelings of guilt, I’d recommend you read this interview in which Aitken talks specifically about his work on Love—and this recent piece by translator Katy Derbyshire about what critics (and, I’d add, readers) should look for when reading something in translation.