Is Mother Dead? By Vigdis Hjorth
“Every mother in every childhood represents madness … your mother is and always will be the strangest person you will ever meet.”
Is Mother Dead follows Johanna, a Norwegian artist who returns to Oslo for a high-profile retrospective of her work. And though her work has garnered her much professional success, it has come at a cost: her relationship with her mom. Johanna’s work depicts motherhood in a less-than-flattering light, which has led to an estrangement between the two. So upon returning home after decades away, Johanna has one goal in mind – to find her mother. This leads to an unnerving game of cat-and-mouse which the reader inevitably knows cannot end well.
It’s a simple premise, and, indeed, a rather simple plot. But the singular, laser focus of the novel creates a claustrophobic, sinister tension that builds and builds to an inevitable conclusion. The pacey, short vignettes of the novel make the reading experience compulsive – but unlike your typical Nordic noir thriller, very little actually happens here.
Johanna’s complex voice is the star of the novel (in no small part thanks to the excellent work of translator Charlotte Barslund). Hjorth brilliantly juxtaposes the bizarre actions of the narrator with the logical, measured way she explains them, leaving the reader with jarring questions as to what is rational. Johanna spends much of the novel reliving brutal memories of her past but seems to find a sick pleasure in torturing herself so. The prose is extremely insular and self-obsessed, and through our participation in Johanna’s voyeurism, we become unwitting co-conspirators.
Hjorth also poses some pertinent questions about truth and memory. After so long apart from her mom, Johanna admits she doesn’t have anything concrete to grasp on to anymore. “In the absence of information, I invent her.” Their estrangement leads to Johanna’s idea of her mother overshadowing the real thing. “We all carry our mothers like a hole in our souls, small or big, living or dead, and . . . we try to fill these voids so that we can live . . .”
Mothering, in Is Mother Dead, is portrayed as a superlatively difficult task. “If we knew, if we understood when we were young how crucial childhood is, no one would ever have children.” And it’s true that the events Johanna witnesses in her childhood, only half understanding what she’s seeing, seem to have had horrific impacts on her character throughout her life.
The bond between mother and daughter is depicted as particularly fraught. “The mother is a mirror in which the daughter sees her future self and the daughter is a mirror through which the mother sees her lost self.” Both Johanna and her mother seem to harbor real beliefs that each has ruined the other’s life.
While the denouement of the story is satisfying, what really makes this novel so great is the slow, terrifying build as we watch Johanna’s progression into erratic mania. But at the heart of it, she just wants to love and be loved by her mom. Is that really so crazy?
Annie Walton Doyle is a 20-something writer based in Manchester, UK. She typically writes about beauty and other “personal aesthetics,” with a healthy dose of both social commentary and stupidity. When not touching makeup or reading books, she enjoys pubs, knitting, nature, and mysteries.