Frimansson, Inger - 'Good Night, My Darling' (translated by Laura A Wideburg)
GOOD NIGHT, MY DARLING tells the life-story of Justine, a lonely woman in her mid-forties who lives on her own in an isolated house in the woods near a lake, somewhere in Sweden. Justine is trying to move on with her life after what seems to be a disaster involving her boyfriend Nathan, but we are not sure exactly what has happened. She decides to begin running to get some exercise, but most of the time she wanders round the house with her tatty raven, who flies freely around, and muses on her childhood with her father, owner of a sweet factory, and her stepmother Flora. She has some dim recollections of her French mother, who died suddenly of a cerebral stroke when Justine was very young.
Gradually we realise that Justine had a deeply unhappy childhood, being bullied and ostracised at school, as well as having to cope with Flora's bitter jealousy and abuse. Justine was a withdrawn child, becoming even more so as a result of this misery. Her father loved her but failed to take any real interest in her. More is revealed about the traumatic events of Justine's early life, and we become more aware of how her past informs her present behaviour.
Interspersed with Justine's story, we also get to know some people who live in the nearby town, particularly a divorced man called Hans-Peter, a bibliophile who works as a night porter in a local hotel; the stepmother Flora, now totally disabled and in a nearby care home; and Berit, who works for a local publisher. I loved these character sketches: the author has a wonderful ability to draw the reader right in to her subjects' lives and preoccupations.
The second part of the book flashes back to Justine's holiday with Nathan, her lover briefly introduced at the start of the novel. He is handsome and feckless, having had three wives, various less formal liaisons with women, and a lot of children. He's decided to start a business running adventure holidays to the Malaysian jungle, so he and Justine decide to go on a trip to check out the locale and logistics. As the couple arrive and join up with a party of fellow-trekkers, Justine is subject to Nathan's mental bullying and unpleasant behaviour, under the surface of his false bonhomie. She cracks, and has to return home - but not before cracking again when she is yet further provoked.
The final section of this excellently translated, haunting novel weaves together all these elements, as the complete picture of Justine's life and character comes into focus from all the previous hints and fragments, as she decides to take decisive action. The author deliberately does not allow the reader to sympathise with or condemn most of the characters, which gives this atmospheric and gripping book a satisfyingly unsettling air. The treatment of the police investigation into various incidents is also told with a dry humour and a rather different perspective from the way in which the police are usually portrayed in crime novels.
Read another review of GOOD NIGHT, MY DARLING.
Maxine Clarke, England