When Liv, Ellen and Håkon, along with their partners and children, arrive in Rome to celebrate their father’s seventieth birthday, a quiet earthquake occurs: their parents have decided to divorce.
Shocked and disbelieving, the siblings try to come to terms with their parents’ decision as it echoes through the homes they have built for themselves, and forces them to reconstruct the shared narrative of their childhood and family history.
It’s Dad’s birthday and I’ve concealed the truth all day long, avoided acknowledging my thoughts, kept them at a distance, but after knocking back my first two alcoholic beverages of the holiday, two glasses of wine, my first in several months, all to Simen’s apparent indifference, I can no longer keep my anger and sorrow in check. I haven’t paid any attention to the conversation around the table, I don’t know what we’re talking about, though I’ve been half-listening to Liv’s slightly long-winded, clichéd speech for Dad – she’s finishing up now, looking at me with uncertainty, she’s struggled so much with it that I haven’t had the heart to do anything but smile approvingly, in spite of the fact that it goes against a definitive principle of mine: to give credit and praise only where they’re due. I try to pull myself together, take a few large gulps of water, look at Simen, who’s had more wine than I have and who’s in excessively good humour, glance at Mum, who seems restless more than anything, wearing the same expectant expression she always assumes when the attention is focused on others. I direct my anger towards her, she’s got no right to be so self-absorbed on today of all days, and when I hear that she has no intention of giving a speech for Dad, probably because she thinks Liv’s spent too much time focus-
ing on him instead of her, the fury burns in my chest.
‘But why?’ I ask, controlling my tone in the same way I’ve taught so
many politicians to do.
Mum fixes her gaze on me, an experience I once found terrifying – condescending and corrective, bordering on contemptuous. I’ve always thought about the fact that I could never look at my own children that way, as if I truly despised them. I’m not afraid of it any more, it’s just a play for power, an attempt to dominate, and I know that Mum doesn’t
despise me, that none of this is necessarily even about me at all.
‘What do you mean, why?’ she replies. ‘As I said, I’ll give a speech
at home in Oslo.’
‘You love saying a few words on occasions like this, can’t you do both?’ I ask, using the same controlled tone. ‘Surely that’s not too much to ask when it concerns your husband of forty years?’ I add, imitating her voice, far too cheap a trick, but I don’t care any more.
Simen laughs, as he always does when things get awkward. It’s actually a surprisingly effective mechanism more often than not, it defuses the situation for most people, but not now, not for Mum and not for me. Nor does it have any effect on Liv, who’s gone pale, no doubt furious that I’ve ruined Dad’s birthday, and for a moment I consider giving up, letting things go. But then I see Dad’s face, he looks so troubled that I let my anger take root there; it’s for his sake that I allow my anger to flourish.
‘That’s enough, Ellen,’ Mum hisses. ‘What’s wrong with you?’
‘What’s wrong with me?’ I repeat loudly. ‘What’s wrong with you?’
Mum stares at me, looking as if she’s about to say something before eventually depositing the plates she’s collected on the table, where they land with a clatter.
Olaf and Simen jump. Liv looks as if she’s about to burst into tears. Håkon is his usual silent self, staring at the table.
‘If it’s a speech you want, you could always do one yourself, isn’t that what you do for a living?’ Mum replies insistently.
Then it’s almost as if she realises there are several of us around the table and she looks at the others, her expression softening, and adds:
‘I just don’t want to use up all my ideas in a speech that I want
Sverre’s friends and colleagues to hear in Oslo, and which you’ve all no
doubt heard before.’
The way Mum has suddenly started referring to Dad by his name is just as significant as if I had started calling her Torill instead of Mum. I roll my eyes to show her how transparent and feeble I find her rhetoric.
‘It’s funny that you don’t think Dad can bear to hear you say nice things twice, unless there’s actually something else going on here,’ I say.
Mum says nothing, staring hard at me with an expression that suggests I’m challenging destiny by disputing her preoccupation with herself, and in a way, it makes me even angrier to know that she’s being granted the attention she craved all along.
‘You’ve been acting strangely ever since we got here,’ I say, unable to stop myself. ‘What’s going on?’
I don’t actually know how Mum’s been acting, I’ve barely paid any attention to her at all until now. The same can be said for the others, I’ve been so absorbed by my own hopes and expectations. But I imagine that I’m right, and that’s good enough for me.
‘I think I’d best let Sverre answer that one,’ Mum says, suddenly calm,
turning to look at Dad. ‘Do you want to tell them what’s wrong, Sverre?’
‘We’ve decided to get a divorce,’ Dad says, almost interrupting her
in full flow, as if he’s been impatiently waiting for an opportunity to speak the words aloud.
Everyone falls silent. Simen looks at me, sitting across the table from me for once, and as my eyes meet his, I reflect on the fact that it ought to have been me making a big
announcement over dinner. I’m pregnant. We’re having a baby. Yes, thank you. No, we didn’t want to say anything until we knew for certain, no, it’s not been easy. But happy
birthday, Dad, you’re going to be a grandfather again.
‘It’s not as dramatic as it sounds,’ Mum says; she’s sitting down again, and I feel the fury still surging towards her, towards Dad, towards the deep injustice of the situation, who do they think they are?
Thank you, Helga Flatland and Random Things Tours.
About the author
Helga Flatland is already one of Norway’s most awarded and widely read
authors. Born in Telemark, Norway, in 1984, she made her literary debut
in 2010 with the novel Stay If You Can, Leave If You Must, for which she
was awarded the Tarjei Vesaas’ First Book Prize.
She has written four novels and a children’s book and has won several
other literary awards. Her fifth novel, A Modern Family, was published to
wide acclaim in Norway in August 2017, and was a number-one bestseller.
The rights have subsequently been sold across Europe and the novel has
sold more than 100,000 copies.