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A Blessed Childby Linn Ullmann
Synopses & Reviews
Every summer Isak Lovenstad gathers his three daughters by different wives to the windswept Baltic island of Hammarso. Here Erika, Laura, and Molly know, if only for the season, what it is to be a family, and here, in the society of children, each undergoes the rites of growing up. Though many alliances form and dissolve, none compares to Erika's bond with the rebellious misfit Ragnar, the intensity of which makes them inseparable. But when they reach the age of fourteen and their relationship threatens to relegate Erika to Ragnar's outcast state, she suddenly turns away — a common enough teenage betrayal that nonetheless precipitates an incident of such senseless cruelty as to forever alter Isak's family. Twenty-five years later, returning to Hammarso to see their father — now eighty, a bereaved widower, and in year-round exile there — the three women confront, finally, the specter of that awful summer, the mark of which each has since carried.
Bold and starkly beautiful, A Blessed Child is a haunting parable of innocence lost.
"Amid summering tourists on the tiny Swedish island of Hammars, a blended multinational family comes together in this arresting and well-observed saga from Ullmann (Grace). Isak, a professor prone to fits of rage, has a loving second wife in Rosa and three daughters by three different women. The eldest, Erika, 13, and the youngest, Molly, five, are flown to Sweden in the summer by their mothers to spend some time with their brilliant, and infuriating father. Middle girl Laura, Rosa's daughter, welcomes them; together, the girls apprehend terror in Isak's irrepressible fits and, tragically, in Ragnar, a local boy Erika's age who doesn't fit in. The narrative moves back and forth in time, as the three daughters converge 25 years later on Hammars to visit their aging father, now mourning the loss of Rosa. In adulthood, each woman possesses a profound inner life haunted by buried childhood memory. While the book's tonal coolness won't be for everyone, the observations of teen life are exceptional, and Ullmann (daughter of Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullmann) successfully mines the traumas of youth for powerful adult emotions." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
Two staples of high school reading — John Knowles' "A Separate Peace" and William Golding's "Lord of the Flies" — have generated decades of literary discourse on the subject of boys being bad. We all gasped when Gene pushed his best friend out of that tree, and we wrote English papers on why Piggy's shattered spectacles — symbols of intellect, civilization and order — meant the English prep-school... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) boys were about to go feral. Alongside this came the curriculum cliche of victim girls. Poor Hester Prynne. Poor Maggie, Stephen Crane's "Girl of the Streets." So entrenched is the literary trope of untamed boys and suffering girls that when the alpha-female adolescent of Linn Ullmann's "A Blessed Child" behaves very, very badly (in a masterfully creepy scene that ends as she "flings the vibrator into the sea"), I thought, "Finally!" Psychologists coined the term "relational aggression" to describe how adolescent girls go wild, detailing the psychological warfare and silent cruelty that often pass for female friendship. Onstage, Arthur Miller's "The Crucible" and Lillian Hellman's "The Children's Hour" have portrayed this wicked side of girls. On-screen, "Heathers," "Heavenly Creatures" and, most recently, "Mean Girls" spotlighted the ugly side of pretty teens. But Ullmann's novel (shortlisted for Norway's prestigious Brage Prize) is a rare literary foray into this dark realm, and she strides in daringly and skillfully. The novel, Ullmann's fourth, seamlessly translated from the Norwegian by Sarah Death, begins with Erika nervously driving through a snowstorm to the Swedish island of Hammarso to visit her 84-year-old father, Isak, a volatile and aloof genius who seems part Prospero, part King Lear and perhaps part Ingmar Bergman (Ullmann's real-life father). The old man has threatened suicide, and Erika enlists her two half sisters, Laura and Molly, to meet her there so they can check on him. In familiar storytelling fashion, Erika's long, snowy drive begets flashbacks: In 1972, the girls (who have different mothers) begin summering with their father on beautiful Hammarso, befriending a group of local adolescents. Raven-haired Marion is the queen bee, directing, with malevolent glances, which hive member is permitted to sunbathe beside her or who will have the distinct privilege of lending her a blouse. At the periphery of this group lurks Ragnar, a lanky male misfit who is Erika's best friend. Erika and Ragnar share a birthday, a secret language and a hiding place in the woods. But when they turn 14, during the unbearably hot summer of 1979, Erika betrays him to gain favor with Marion and to hide own her attraction to Ragnar, setting in motion an event that makes "Lord of the Flies" look almost prudish. The novel's mosaic structure, an assemblage of various points of view at various points in time, creates powerful echoes between this horrific past event and the present. The adult Erika's painful pregnancy with her son reads like penance for her betrayal of Ragnar: "There he lay like a little suicide bomber, waiting to blow himself and Erika to pieces." (The motif of childbirth is wonderfully weaved throughout the novel: Each woman is defined by her feelings about motherhood, and Erika's father is a gynecologist famous for pioneering ultrasound.) Laura's worry about her community's response to a suspected pedophile bespeaks her regret about the violence against Ragnar 25 years earlier. Ullmann is a terrific writer. Her novel's great strengths are the brilliantly drawn characters and the evocative setting of Hammarso. The novel's weakness is a somewhat meandering plot. The drive that sets the story in motion quickly proves a literal and narrative road to nowhere. It frames the 1970s events and allows us a satisfying glimpse of the women these girls became, but little happens in the present day. If "A Blessed Child" is essentially about a crime committed against a child, the author seems unsure in the end who, exactly, is guilty. It's one thing for the culpable to deny responsibility, but it's odd for an omniscient narrator to point fingers at the relatively innocent. Having bravely portrayed a world where girls behave wickedly, Ullmann curiously reverts to painting them as victims, not culprits. In the well-worn narratives of boys gone bad, the implication is that boys can regress to a dangerous "natural" state. When the Lord of the Flies speaks through an impaled pig's head, he says, "Fancy thinking the Beast was something you could hunt and kill! You knew, didn't you? I'm part of you? Close, close, close!" But who is to blame when girls behave badly? Ullmann has raised the question in this captivating tale but doesn't answer it. Reviewed by Jennifer Vanderbes,who is the author of 'Easter Island', Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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From the internationally acclaimed author of Stella Descending and Grace comes a captivating story of sisterhood and the inescapable chords of childhood memory.
From the internationally acclaimed author of Stella Descending and Grace, a captivating story of sisterhood and of the inescapable chords of childhood memory.
About the Author
Linn Ullmann is a graduate of New York University, where she studied English literature and began work on a Ph.D. She returned to her native Oslo in 1990 to pursue a career in journalism. A prominent literary critic, she also writes a column for Norway's leading morning newspaper and has published four novels. She lives in Oslo.
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