Sunday 16 February 2014

#CBR6 Book 16: "Innsirkling" (Encirclement) by Carl Frode Tiller

Page count: 285 pages
Rating: 2 stars

David has lost his memory. A news paper notice appears, asking people whether they know him and encouraging friends and acquaintances to write to him, to help him restore his memories. In this book, we get to read the letters of three of the people who write to him, as well as read about their current lives. As we read their stories and letters to David, more of his identity is revealed, but much more so, the identity of the letter writers.

The first third of the book introduces us to Jon, an aspiring musician with an ailing mother and a fraught rivalry with his only brother. He doesn't have the heart to tell his mother, who never had faith that he would make it as a professional bassist, that he quit his band in the middle of their tour. He feels like a constant failure, not helped by the fact that he recently broke up with his long term girlfriend, who his mother keeps hoping he'll get back together with. Then he discovers that his brother and sister-in-law are about to adopt a child, fulfilling his mother's dreams of becoming a grandmother, and he seems to lose it completely.

The second third features Arvid, David's stepfather, who sees the newspaper notice while in hospital, trying to come to terms with the fact that he's going to die of cancer. The opportunity to reconnect with his stepson through the letters gives the former priest renewed faith in the God he felt abandoned by, and brings him new hope.

The last third is about Silje, a middle aged woman going having marital troubles, considering divorce and trying to come to terms with the death of her overbearing mother. She keeps picking fights with her husband, and can't seem to help making her situation worse than it already is.

The letters focus on the friendship between Jon, David and Silje, and give three very different accounts of the relationship dynamic of the three. In Jon's letters, Silje is mostly on the periphery, while he and David share a secret and experimental homosexual relationship, while discovering existential philosophy, art, literature and being as pretentious and different from the other teenagers in their little town as possible. In Arvid's letters, we see his deep love for David's mother and his wish to be a good father figure for the boy. He observes that there was an unhealthy power dynamic in the group, with David and Silje frequently goading the insecure and impressionable Jon into doing things he would otherwise never have done. Silje's letters paint her as David's girlfriend, with Jon the slightly clueless and melodramatic third wheel. Who is really showing us, and David, the truth about the past?

This book was awarded the Brage Prize in 2007, an award that since 1992 has aimed to recognise significant works of contemporary Norwegian literature. It has an interesting premise, with themes of identity being explored though its somewhat unusual structure. Because the reader gets to see the three letter writers in the present, as well as reading their accounts of the past, and all three people give very different versions of David's teenage years, it raises questions about which of the narrators are actually reliable.

While the unusual structure and idea makes the book interesting, I didn't really like the book much, because I couldn't really stand Jon and Silje. Their present lives were uninteresting to me, and they were so clearly mainly the cause of their own misfortunes. I also found their stories unconvincing. The only character I found sympathetic was Arvid, the stepfather, and while I'm sure his version of his personal life with David's mother might be coloured more favourably towards him as an understanding husband and sensitive and caring stepfather, I don't see what he would gain from portraying the relationship between the three friends in anything but a true light.

I was also frustrated by the fact that all these three people were supposed to be writing to help this David remember who he was, and managed to make the letters and their accounts all about themselves. Which is probably the author's way of showing that even when supposed  to try to help another, human nature is inevitably selfish and narcissistic.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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