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1 June 2019

Blogtour review - A Modern Family by Helga Flatland

What you'll see in the shops...
A Modern Family
Helga Flatland (trans. from the Norwegian by Rosie Hedger)
Orenda, 13 June 2019
PB, 236pp

Today is DAY ONE of the blogtour for Helga Flatland's new study of families and family life in the 21st century, A Modern Family. I'm grateful to Orenda Books for an advance copy and to Anne Cater for inviting me to take part in the blogtour.

The proof copy of A Modern Family which I was sent  had a very different cover (see my photo below) from the final book (right). The image of a felled tree, lying in front of a Scandinavian-style house, all in cool tones of grey and green, is a big contrast to the Kodachrome tinged wedding photo - with the heads of the happy couple cropped out - which you'll see in bookshops and, I hope, on your shelves.

That isn't unusual, but for me it rather neatly illustrates something about this book. A Modern Family is a complex book, presenting many different facets, and both versions accurately capture an aspect of it. If I'd been asked to design the cover, I might have suggested a labyrinth made of mirrors - difficult to realise, I know, and I don't think that Orenda will be taking me on anytime soon as their designer. But it is my conception of this book: multiply reflective, misleading at times, presenting myriad images. I fear I won't be able to do justice to it in this review so the TL;DR summary is - if you enjoy sophisticated, vivid, portrayals of modern, grown-up life, then buy this and read it.

...and my reading copy.
The story itself is deceptively simple. It concerns two generations of a family: parents Sverre and Torrill and children (eldest to youngest) Liv, Ellen and Håkon. There are two years between Liv and Ellen, eight years between her and Håkon. Liv's kids Agnar and Hedda also feature, as does her husband Olaf, and Ellen's partner Simen.

As A Modern Family opens, all are gathering in Italy for a family holiday at which Sverre's seventieth birthday will be marked. However, he stuns the three children by announcing that he and Torrill have decided to divorce. The book then follows the family back to Norway and focusses on the reactions of Liv, Ellen and Håkon and their relationships with each other, another key theme being Ellen's desperation to have a child.

Put baldly like that, it doesn't sound as though a great deal happens here, and from one point of view, that's certainly true. But looked at another way, there is a great deal going on. Flatland's dissection of these lives is merciless and thorough - while short, it's not a book you can race through. I found I had to keep stopping both to think about what was going on, and also, at times, for a break from the merciless, and clever, exposure of a certain sort of family.

Merciless, because while one may at the end understand these characters, they are hard to like (except perhaps Agnar).

Clever, because Flatland gives us not just one unreliable narrator, but three.

The earlier sections of the book are told alternately from Liv's and Ellen's perspectives, the final section from Håkon's. They overlap to a significant extent, but aren't identical - so even accounts of the same conversations differ, the stresses reflecting both the concerns of the three at the time and their prejudices and histories. That tells us a lot, but indirectly, about Sverre and Torrill and their marriage. It is clear, for example, that each child sees himself or herself as the poor relation, the loser in a kind of emotional game of Rock, Paper, Scissors, as having either received less of their parents' attention or regard or having had greater demands placed on them.

For example, Liv believes her mother to be a controlling person, and that this has affected her most because she is the eldest. Whether this is actually true, or she is projecting, or looking for an alibi for, her own very obviously controlling behaviour with son Agnar, isn't clear. Similarly, Ellen sees her parents and siblings very much through the lens of her desire for a child, constantly going back to the effect of her own birth on her mother and on her younger sibling, Håkon (that eight year gap - was it her "fault"?).

But in neither case is it as simple as I have suggested, there are layers and layers to this book and each of the relationships adds nuance and caveats to the facts that you, the reader, think have ben established. It is a book that will keep you wondering, and feeling, to the very last sentence (have some bookmarks handy so that you can go back and forward comparing passages!) and not every mystery is solved. In particular, apart from a couple of well-rehearsed reported speeches (but, remember, the reporters here are all biased) we never see Sverre and Torrill's marriage from the inside, only as it is refracted through the lives of their kids. We are never told exactly how or why they decided to divorce.

Trying to infer what happened to those two is a bit like trying to plot the course of an unseen particle through its interactions with others. So we see the hurt that each of Liv, Ellen and Håkon display following their parents' announcement - but how far it is pique that their comfortable assumptions and routines have been overturned, and how far a genuine concern for their parents, seems questionable. (One reaction, that the decision means the whole basis of their family life has been a lie, seems especially questionable - and to raise fascinating questions as well!)

Among all this there are some fascinating character sketches. Liv, whose life seems built on control, carefully allowing herself fifteen cigarettes for the duration of the Italian holiday. Håkon, proclaiming  a very 1960s "free love" philosophy, who seems never quite to have grown up. Ellen, whose desire for a child, while heartfelt, always seems quite abstract, as though it's a box she has to tick before she will consider herself a full adult.

It's a family that seems quite inwardly focussed: none of the changes and chances explored here really affects anyone's material comfort - they all have nice middle-class job - the sort where you can skive for a day at home to cover an emotional upset without worrying about being sacked, or where an efficient PA will make sure that a meeting you forgot to prepare for will run smoothly. Houses and flats are bought and sold as required (while exorbitant mortgages are noted, they can clearly be paid). The state of the outside world doesn't impinge much (Trump and Brexit are mentioned in passing, but more to illustrate points in that endless game of three-dimensional chess between the three than as real things that might matter) and nor does anyone beyond the family.

Ultimately, I felt, this little group was willingly trapped in its own private world and would carry on and on trying and failing to understand and map it, with little of the outside perspective that would be needed for this to succeed. In that respect, perhaps it does describe a truly modern family - there is no sense here of location in any wider community (friends, work colleagues) on whom one might depend for advice or support. It's a vivid, if chilling, portrayal.

A Modern Family was a book I could really engage with - a fascinating and complex, if bleak, read.

For more information about A Modern Family, see the Orenda website here. You can buy the book from your local bookshop, including via Hive or from Blackwell's, Waterstones or Amazon.

The blogtour continues with some real treats lined up - see the poster below for further stops where new perspectives and fresh insights await!

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