Unquiet: A Novel
By Linn Ullmann
Translated from Norwegian: Thilo Reinhard
Read Oct 2020
This reader listened to an audio version of the book which allowed her to be unaware that Linn Ullmann is the daughter of Liv Ullmann and Ingmar Bergman. This reader has since learned that the book, while called a novel, does, at least in part, reflect actual events. Frankly if the book had been called a memoir and/or the true parental situation of the author was part of the marketing of the audiobook, this reader likely would have not chosen to read it. But absent that distraction, this reader did choose to read the book and greatly enjoyed it. Although this reader is generally aware of the celebrated works of the authors’ parents, this reader is just young enough and just uncool enough to have none of their films. So this reader won’t discuss the real parents any further.
The narrator tells us fairly early in the book that she and her father, a famous Swedish filmmaker, had planned to write a book about him. They had spent two years discussing the project and planned that they would take a jeep tour when they were done (her father loved driving his jeep). Unfortunately by the time the tape recorder was purchased and the recordings began, the father’s health had failed substantially and only a few recordings were made. So the narrator instead provides us with her thoughts about her life—focusing only on her childhood, the time during which the recordings were made, and after his death.
The narrator was the “love child” of a famous Swedish filmmaker and a Norwegian actress. She never names them, which suited this reader, and refers to them by “the father” or “papa” etc. She was the youngest of his nine children born of 5 mothers. The filmmaker was married to four of these women but he and her mother never married. So there was never “the three of them” that she remembered but rather only she and her mother and she and her father.
She tells of the summers spent with her father and his last wife on his property on an island off the coast of Sweden. The property had a number of buildings including the narrow house he progressively expanded over the years and a barn that was converted to a movie theater. She tells of times with her mother including when they were in the United States in a rented yellow house outside of New York City chosen because it had trees and children should be raised with trees.
She tells of the sessions she records on a small recorder but never listened to until after her father’s death so she didn’t realize how poor the sound quality was despite being told this was the best device for the job. The dialog between father and daughter is quite sad as it shows the rapid decline of his mental and physical capabilities which contrasts with his robustness when she was a child.
Absent the knowledge of the true identity of the characters of the book, this book told a story of a girl born of a father 48 years her senior and a younger (by 20 years) mother. This reader developed a sense that the narrator generally felt distant from both of her parents. She desperately wanted more connection with her father, a desire that lasted throughout her life. It seems she had more connection with her father than any of his other children but this connection was still very much on his terms and didn’t seem to take into consideration any needs of hers, perhaps due to expectations of fathers in the timeframe of the story (1960’s), his age, and his focus on his own interests and career . The mother/daughter relationship seems somewhat universal in many ways: daughter is annoyed by mother; mother has distinct ideas about what children need (in this case trees and milk); mother is inconsistent in dealing with her daughter; and likely neither ever understands nor connects fully with the other. The author moves seemingly randomly through time with her various memories which suited this reader well. It felt like our own memories which pick varying times when we choose to start remembering.
The writing was quite engaging. Descriptions of the wind-swept island, her father driving his jeep fast to make the ferry to buy his papers on the mainland, the drying house where she hid when a young girl—all are quite vivid.
Forget that the characters are real people and enjoy the beauty of the writing, the way the author reels out memories of a childhood, and the approach she takes to show the realities adult children face when parents’ lives are coming to a close.