Sunday 2 June 2019

Book Review: A Modern Family by Helga Flatland

When the publicity for a forthcoming novel calls its author the Norwegian Anne Tyler and combines this with hints of Ingmar Bergman, I can't help but sit up and take notice.

But then the doubts begin to set in. Can this book possibly live up to its billing? Suddenly, A Modern Family by Helga Flatland has high expectations to deliver against.

Yet, this up-and-coming author, born in 1984, is far from an over-hyped ingénue. In Norway, she has won the Tarjei Vesaas first book prize and is already very widely read, writing for both adults and children. A Modern Family is her fifth novel - though the first to be translated into English.

The story focuses a lens on adult siblings Liv, Ellen and Håkon. Arriving in Rome with their partners and children to celebrate their father's 70th birthday, they are stunned instead by the announcement of their parents' impending divorce. The tectonic plates beneath a family's life begin to shift, forcing the children to examine their shared past and the early warning tremors they might previously have overlooked.

Told from the alternating perspectives of Liv, Ellen and finally Håkon, the novel then explores the emotional aftershocks of this revelatory decision, set against the increasingly troubled trajectory of current relationships. The whole of the siblings' childhood is subject to examination and revision, their bonds with each other, their partners and newly single parents put under strain.

Liv, the eldest, believes she has always carried more than her fair share of responsibility. Middle child Ellen has exerted an independence that she now feels to be floundering, while as the youngest and only son, Håkon has so far escaped any shouldering of the family burden. Ther narratives reflect their places in the hierarchy and describe subtly different versions of the same events - where is the truth here and who is the unreliable narrator?

There are shades of Anne Tyler's closely observed domestic complexity and the unexpected poignancy of simple acts; the rhythms of family holidays and everyday preparation of meals. Yet, Tyler's Baltimore homeliness contrasts with the clean, crisp and notably Norwegian accents of Flatland's work, with its professional middle-class setting, where emotions that seem one stage removed gradually begin to implode.

It's impossible to compare any single novel from an emerging (in the United Kingdom, at least) writer with the body of work of one of literature's established greats. Yet nonetheless easy to reflect that, in this highly readable translation by Rosie Hedger, Helga Flatland has written an elegant, empathetically observed and insightful saga of the habitual ties that bind a family together, but ultimately threaten to cast it asunder.

A Modern Family by Helga Flatland is published by Orenda Books on 21 June 2019. Many thanks to the publishers for my review copy. 

1 comment:

  1. That is definitely a bold comparison! But it does sound like a good read.


I'd love to hear what you think! Please let me know in the box below