Girls Against God by Jenny Hval
Translated by Marjam Idriss
I was browsing the Verso books website (as you do when there’s an offer on!). I don’t think I’d read any of their publications before, but I knew they had some Scandi authors in their list. I was drawn to the cover of this one, which suggests witches, and then read the blurb which talks of Edvard Munch and ‘black metal’ and I felt I had to give the novel which was published in translation in 2020 a try!
Let me just say, metal in general, is definitively NOT my scene, I go no heavier than the rock of Led Zep or Deep Purple. But, there is something fascinating about the way that young people are drawn to the more extreme musical genres – and of all the sub-genres of metal, black metal, which originated in Norway, appears to be the most extreme of all with its associations with Satanism, being fiercely anti-Christian and the ‘corpse paint’ make-up that bands and fans wear. Add in fanatics church-burning and Neo Nazis at the extreme end, and it doesn’t sound a healthy place to be. However, coming from the very Christian small towns in Southern Norway you can understand the need to rebel, but really they’re just replacing one ritual with another, aren’t they?
I began reading – and found the first dozen or so pages exhilarating and so angry. The narrator takes us back:
It’s 1990, and I’m the Gloomiest Child Queen
She tells us how she hates God, she hates her teachers’ thick southern Norwegian accent, only suited to sermons and preaching.
Hatred makes me so happy. My hatred is radioactive, and as a child in 1990, I beam with it.
Later, at college where she’s planning to make a film, she meets Venke and Terese at an Edvard Munch exhibition. Munch’s painting Puberty (1894-5) will become a touchstone for the threesome who style themselves as witches in a band. The three do performances together, watch a lot of porn and carry on hating, although tempered by moving into adulthood.
The narrator continues to jump backwards and forwards in time, pausing to digress into more possible scenes for her film. There’s more porn and plenty of menstrual imagery, there’s 3D printed baby dolls being shattered (echoes of the ancient Greek Maenads tearing apart babies for the Dionysus to reassemble, or not). Before final sections present a version of the film.
If you think Virginie Despentes is confrontational in style (my review of her King Kong Theory here), Hval is more so, her brand of angry feminism is shown through a horror lens. This isn’t so much a novel with a conventional narrative as much as a series of fictional essays – it strongly feels like auto-fiction.
Hval was a singer-songwriter first, playing in bands and with a string of solo albums – one of which, Blood Bitch from 2016 is about vampires and menstruation, themes which surface in this novel. (You can listen to/see the track Female Vampire here, which musically I rather liked with its rhythms and synths).
Although I enjoyed the opening sections of this novel, I did find it went on a bit. I don’t enjoy reading about porn for instance, so found myself skimming as I went on through the book. I would have liked a little more narrative drive about making the film at times perhaps, rather than its sort of fizzling out. We don’t really get to know Venke and Terese either, they’re just part of the rituals without individual personalities – all three tend to merge.
To sum up, an interesting beginning, but not quite sustained for me. I did love the illustration under the flapped cover though. (6/10)
Source: Own copy. Verso flapped paperback original. 230 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)