Toxic by Helga Flatland – #blogtour

Translated by from the Norwegian by Matt Bagguley

Helga Flatland does complicated relationships as I discovered when I read her novel One Last Time back in 2021, so I was keen to read her newest novel Toxic, this time translated by a new-to-me translator in Matt Bagguley.

The novel begins in two parallel timelines. The first is narrated by Johs, who together with his brother Andres, runs the rural family livestock farm. They run a dairy herd and have an ultra-modern robot-controlled milking parlour. Their intervention to milk the cows isn’t needed day to day unless a cow is ill, but there is still plenty of work on the farm for them to do, especially with their mother Signe helping – or hindering – as Johs would have it.

The two brothers are complete opposites, Andres is a bit of a hypochondriac, and as the story opens he is very concerned about catching Covid – although there is little risk to them spending most of their days on their own. As a result Andres will be ‘ill’ and Johs will pick up his shifts, grudgingly perhaps, but it has to be done. Andres is married to Kristin and they have a son Olav. Johs meanwhile is a fiddle player; he has nowhere near the talent of his late grandfather Johannes who used his fiddle and charm to get away with much behaving badly in their community. But Johs does love the fiddle, and inherited Johannes’ special ‘Hardanger fiddles’, and the four sections of the book are named for the particular tuning he favoured – the ‘troll’ tuning of (A-E-A-C♯) used for the fanitullen folk songs that Johannes played and sang.

[As a former violinist, these fiddles were of interest to me, not having come across them before – they’re a Norwegian violin variant with a second set of 4 or 5 strings below the main ones which resonate when the main strings are played, and there is growing interest around the world in them according to Wikipedia. They’re considered the national instrument of Norway.]

After we’ve met Johs and his family, Mathilde takes over the narration. She’s just arrived back from a holiday to Tromsø, and pops in to see her Mum.

‘My God, you look an awful lot like your mother today.’

Her eyes well up with tears, which she dabs at exaggeratedly. Mum, who is actually the sister of my biological mother, too custody of me thirty years ago when I was four, after both my parents died in a car accident. I only have vague memories of them, sensing them occasionally when I’m half asleep, or reminded by a smell or a sound or a touch. Mum remembers them, of course, especially her sister, the grief permanently at the forefront of her mind.

Her Mum knows nothing about Mathilde’s current relationship though. She began work as a substitute teacher in Norwegian at an Oslo school, and afterwards was chatted up by one of the students she’d taught, Jakob, who is eighteen. It was Jakob who led them into a relationship.

‘I’ve fancied you since the first Norwegian class in early autumn,’ he said that night in my apartment. ‘You’re eighteen, you fancy everyone,’ I replied. ‘No,’ he said, ‘I don’t fancy anyone normally, I’m extremely sexually selective by nature.’

Although not illegal age-wise, of course, you simply can’t have a student-teacher sexual relationship. Mathilde knows this deep down, but the pair are deeply infatuated with each other. You just know what’ll happen, don’t you? Mathilde will lose her job, and with all the eyes of Oslo on her, will run away to the country side – she’ll write a novel, she thinks.

And so around halfway through the novel after some complex world-building, Mathilde comes to rent the empty cottage on Johs and Andres’ farm and the two storylines coalesce – although chapters continue to alternate the narration between Johs and Mathilde. At first brothers are amused at Mathilde’s city ways, and every time she volunteers to help it goes wrong (much to Signes’ disdain). She’s not getting any writing done though, and picks up some shifts at the nearest school which was desperate for help and needed no references.

As the weeks go by though, tensions begin to rise on the farm everywhere, her arrival has upset the balance: between the brothers, between Kristin and Andres, between Johs and his fiddle pupil Viggo, between Signe and her family, between Mathilde and them all ultimately as her past catches up with her.

Although Mathilde did a really stupid thing in embarking on the relationship with Jakob, like Sheba in Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal, you do have a little sympathy for her, at times anyway. She may have naive to be been led on, but she didn’t have to consummate it! Then, demonstrating another type of naivety leads to her destroying the equilibrium in the countryside, brings it home that she has become more than just ‘damaged goods’, as one character describes her, she is toxic. By contrast, the character I liked most was the hard-working, long-suffering Johs who gets on with things, watches from afar, but keeps the stories in the songs alive.

Helga Flatland has delivered another novel of complicated relationships, and tensions simmering underneath that just need a catalyst to come to the surface. It’s a compelling read once again and I really enjoyed it, and was delighted to take part in the blogtour.

Source: Review copy – thank you! Orenda paperback, 263 pages.

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2 thoughts on “Toxic by Helga Flatland – #blogtour

  1. Calmgrove says:

    I’ve heard some recorded examples of Hardanger fiddle tunes and they have a distinctive character doubtless partly due to the tuning and the sympathetic resonances. Do you suppose that’s what Flatland wants the reader to draw from the novel – unexpected relationships and resonances?

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