Sunday, 5 May 2013

#CBR5 Book 45. "Maskeblomstfamilien" (The Figwort Family) by Lars Saabye Christensen

Page count: 285 pages
Rating: 1.5 star

"I had a good childhood. My father died when I was twelve. My mother went to bed early. I was an only child." 

These are the opening lines of Maskeblomstfamilien, a title which can be translated as The Figwort Family, but which can be interpreted in several ways, and holds more than one meaning. The plants and flowers of the Figwort Family usually have large leaves that cover up and blanket the ground. The flowers are often without scent, but if they do smell, it's more of an unpleasant stench than a refreshing smell. Foxglove, and other flowers in the Digitalis family, which is a subgroup of the Figwort family, are all poisonous.

In Norwegian, the title can also be broken into three - maske means mask, blomst means flower and familien means the family. Every significant person in this novel are not entirely as they appear at first, they all wear masks. The Greek tragedy of Oedipus also plays a central part in the last third of the novel, which is in itself structured as a classical tragedy in three acts. The flower is Adrian, the protagonist, who, considering the environment in which he is raised, unsurprisingly grows up to be a deeply twisted individual. The Wang family, his family, are not supportive or nurturing, and they all have dark secrets.

Adrian Wang might claim he had a good childhood, but the reader quickly learns that he is a very unreliable narrator. Born in the 1950s, during a solar eclipse, living in a dark and mostly empty flat in the centre of Oslo, situated right behind the Royal Palace, the reader quickly sees that he is not quite like other children. He doesn't take part in P.E, with a doctor's note ensuring that he can stay on the sidelines. He is told by more than one adult that he is completely shameless. He overhears his parents arguing with the family doctor about an operation that needs to be performed before he grows too old, and it's too late. He appears completely devoid of empathy for others, a calculating, devious child, always wanting to manipulate situations to his own advantage.

His mother is beautiful, delicate and distant. His father works long hours as a patent engineer. He doesn't seem to be around much, and when he's not working, he shuts himself away in his home office, or sits in the parlor, reading Time magazine with hands covered in white gloves. There is also an aunt, his father's older sister, who Adrian nicknames "the skeleton". She's skinny, bitter and cracks her knuckles loudly. These are the adults our protagonist is supposed to take his guidance from.

When it comes to peers his own age, Adrian doesn't really have any. He's a solitary child, with no real friends to speak of. None of the other boys seem to like him much, and more than once he is bullied and beaten up. The closest thing he has to a friend is Emilie, the Albino girl who lives one floor down from him. She's also an only child, and more of an obvious victim with her milky white skin, cleft lip and red, sensitive eyes. She tries to show Adrian kindness and friendship, but is frequently met with scorn and rebuffed.

The book follows Adrian from the age of 12 until he is 17. As he says in the opening lines - his father died when he was twelve - by shooting himself in the head with a shotgun. Whether it's because his business is failing, or something darker and more sinister, is unclear. Lillian, Adrian's already frequently distant mother, retreats into silent grief and/or shame and becomes the Widow for the remains of the story. The aunt moves in and tries to take control of the household. The Widow is moved from the master bedroom to the maid's pantry, spending most of her time in bed, until she is finally so far gone that she is taken away by the family doctor, and only Adrian and the Aunt remain, locked in a battle of wills. Then, at the end of the first act, Emilie disappears, to be found three days later, dead in the basement. Was her death an accident, or did something worse happen to her?

Lars Saabye Christensen is a very critically acclaimed Norwegian writer, and most of his books deal with boys growing up in Oslo in the 1950s and 60s. His protagonists are often a bit different, wanting nothing so much as to fit in, be one of the guys. He has a brilliant way with words, but despite this being the sixth of his novels that I've read, his books at best leave me indifferent and bored, and at worst, creep me out and disgust me. This book was one of the ones that absolutely disgusted me. I found it completely impossible to even vaguely sympathise with Adrian, despite the ways he is mistreated as a child, and clearly not given the help he so desperately needs. When he was bullied and beaten, a part of me cheered the bullies on. It's obvious from very early on that bad things are going to happen in the book, and that Adrian is going to be the cause of some of them. He is a sociopath and a very evil person. I wanted horrible things to happen to him. I don't like feeling that way when I read, I was comforted to hear that most of the others in my Norwegian course, including the lecturer felt much the same way - you're clearly not meant to like Adrian. Even so, I've given Christensen six chances, and with each new book I read, I'm more convinced than before that his books are not for me. I'm not going to be reading any more of Christensen's books, even if most of them don't have such twisted protagonists.

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