One Last Time by Helga Flatland
Translated by Rosie Hedger
Helga Flatland’s fifth novel, A Modern Family, won the Norwegian Bookseller’s Prize, and was her first to be translated into English by Rosie Hedger. She has been billed as the ‘Norwegian Anne Tyler’, and when offered the opportunity to join the blog tour for her latest novel, that comparison made it a must-read. I wasn’t disappointed.
One Last Time is a cross-generational family drama featuring a modern family. Sigrid, a doctor, is divorced from Jens, the father of her oldest child, teenager Mia; she is now with Aslak with whom she has a younger son, Viljar. They all live in Oslo. Sigrid’s parents are Anne and Gustav; Gustav has lived in a home for many years after a series of strokes which began when Sigrid was young. Anne still lives on the family farm a good way out of Oslo and visits Gustav daily, even though he no longer recognises her really. Once Gustav had his strokes, Sigrid took second place growing up, something she has always resented and has resulted in distance between them.
Honestly, Sigrid, you more than anyone saw what looking after Gustav involved, how much I’ve sacrificed. If you spend a few days with wet socks at primary school, obviously I’m sorry about that, but you’re hardly the true victim in all this, I told her in as measured a tone as I could muster. She said nothing, waited a few seconds before getting up and leaving. I woke that night and remembered at least one occasion when Sigrid had been at high school and I had urged her to wear her boots, she had flown into a rage with me, stormed out the door and into the icy rain in her trainers and denim jacket.
I sometimes regret becoming a doctor instead of going off the rails to such an extent that it would be clear my upbringing had harmed me, that my parents’ abandonment had damaged me, that I had more significant spiritual wounds than anybody would expect from the doctor in her white coat.
Those two early paragraphs encapsulate the relationship between mother and daughter perfectly.
This is a quiet novel, yet it begins with a rather dramatic visceral scene, as Anne kills her chickens, the only remaining animals she has had for years now. There is a reason for doing it; Anne has received a terminal cancer diagnosis. This naturally drives the drama of the novel, as Anne undergoes treatment, declines further treatment and prepares for the end. There is a last family holiday too to the South of France which, as you might guess, wasn’t a good idea.
All the way through Sigrid struggles in her relationship with her mother. As a doctor, she puts on her protective armour to help herself through her mother’s gradual decline. She also has Mia to deal with, who is reconciled with her father, and Sigrid feels jealous of the attention Jens is now getting which use to be hers alone. Sigrid also has one problem patient to deal with, Frida is mentally ill, has been suicidal, and is now pregnant and takes a lot of her time, and Frida’s story provides a counterpoint to that of her own family.
While the novel’s main drive is between the generations of women, I really did feel for Aslak, Sigrid’s partner. He is a solid, dependable man who Sigrid knew in her teens, meeting again when her relationship with Jens ended, moving to the city for Sigrid’s career, but his heart is in the country.
Flatland has created a family of very believable characters and woven an intense drama around this time in their lives. Somehow, the drama never quite becomes a full-blown crisis, yet, as in the Anne Tyler novels her books are compared to, that is never a problem, the drama we get is enough, even when we know that Sigrid’s mother is unlikely to survive. There is a coming to terms for all involved, a rekindling of relationships long held at arm’s length, and a letting go.
There have been many novels of families having to come to terms with a terminal diagnosis, but One Last Time is written with an insight into this family’s emotions that raises it above the norm, with a warmth and dry humour in Helga Flatland’s writing, (as translated by Rosie Hedger) that I really appreciated. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, and look forward to reading more by this author. Recommended reading.
Source: Review copy – thank you. Orenda paperback original, 276 pages.
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