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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 25 May 2018

Review: 'The Gradual Disappearance of Jane Ashland' is an account of one woman’s alienation 

Nicolai Houm’s non-linear tale of alienation will haunt the reader long after the last page is turned, writes Malcolm Forbes

New York city skyline.
New York city skyline.

Nicolai Houm has two critically acclaimed novels under his belt in his native Norway. The Gradual Disappearance of Jane Ashland is his first work to be published in English. It is a book that straddles two worlds: it features an American heroine and charts her travels, and her struggles, in America and Norway, home and away. After captivating Norwegian readers, it is now able to leave its mark on Anglophone audiences.

In the book’s short, enticing opening scenes, Houm’s protagonist wakes up in a tent in the Norwegian mountains and takes stock of what appears to be a desperate situation. She is alone – the man she was with has left her and taken their map. Her phone is dead, her food supplies are almost gone, the temperature has plummeted and a dense fog smothers the landscape.

As we read on we realise that Houm’s beginning is in fact an endpoint – a final predicament and possibly even the final stages of a life. His narrative weaves this way and that, flitting from key moments in the woman’s past in America to her fresh start and wrong turns in Norway.

The gradual disappearance of the title begins to make sense. However, as we accrue more facts, make the right connections and rearrange the jumbled sequence of events, we also witness a gradual appearance, a hazy portrait brought into sharp focus, until finally we see the complete, devastating picture.

Houm unspools from a misty mountain to a transatlantic flight. Jane Ashland, an American writer, gets talking to her fellow passenger, blond, bearded zoologist Ulf. “He could easily have been the unknown fifth member of Abba.”

She has been investigating her family origins, and plans to stay and become acquainted with long-lost relatives in Norway. He has been studying musk ox on a two-year research project and is now returning home. On the ground she says no to a coffee but takes his number – “just in case”.

From here Houm veers off and starts jumping backwards and forwards.

We see Jane at home with her eccentric father and her melancholic mother – who sits at her window enjoying “a view free from memories”. A Dr Rice evaluates Jane’s pain and advises her to pick up her pen again: after all, writing is therapy for some but for her it is a profession. She resigns from her job teaching creative writing at the University of Wisconsin and takes up genealogy.

Again and again we cut to Norway to follow two separate strands. Jane settles in with her distant family, the Askeland-Nilsens, in Oslo, but after the gulf between them turns tension into conflict she slopes off to join Ulf on a hike through the Dovrefjell mountain range.

At first she feels shame and guilt in his company and finds everything “dizzyingly unreal”. Soon, though, she learns to relax and, for a while, forget – especially when she laughs for the first time in seven months. Is he, she wonders, “an absent-minded professional nerd as well as, maybe, a fascinating lone wolf”? But when the weather worsens and the mood sours she is no longer interested in discovering who he is, and he decides she is best left alone.

These shuffled sections reveal much of who Jane is and how her mind works. But it is the book’s flashbacks to Jane’s previous life that serve as clues to what might have befallen her.

Houm takes us back to her college years in New York and her connection with Greg.

“It felt like having searched radio frequencies all alone for 22 years before reaching a voice at last.”

There is a happy marriage, motherhood and literary success – and then one day tragedy strikes.

Houm discloses only so much and at just the right junctures. Some revelations are more ominous than others: snippets of a court case; mention of ongoing grief; knowledge that Jane is an epileptic and out of medicine. As hints are dropped the stakes are raised, and we play a guessing game while waiting on tenterhooks for explanations and consequences.

The novel’s prose is plain and unadorned – so much so that Houm’s cumulative dramatic effects would have fallen short and fizzled out had he opted to tell his tale chronologically. Comparisons with compatriots are often unhelpful but it’s worth pointing out that Houm’s writing style resembles more the cool, streamlined lucidity of Per Petterson than the freewheeling, detail-stuffed meanderings of Karl Ove Knausgaard. Anna ­Paterson deserves credit for her accomplished translation.

What we get is simplicity that is strangely compelling and quietly unsettling. Every so often Houm surprises and impresses with either a bout of profound thinking or a lyrical flourish: “A faint, red sheen glows at the far horizon but the cold had stretched the sky until it went white, leaving only small moth holes that let out the ancient light of eternity.”

The Gradual Disappearance of Jane Ashland is a beautifully observed account of one woman’s alienation, deep hurt and slow road to recovery. As Houm writes: “How easy it was to lose one’s sense of reality when there was nothing else left to lose.”

Jane is still traumatised by her cruel blow months down the line. Similarly, we are still haunted by this fine novel long after finishing it.

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