Berlin Poplars, By Anne B Ragde, trans James Anderson

A sophisticated exploration of family by a prize-winning Norwegian novelist
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The three Neshov brothers are not closely knit. Beyond a dollop of DNA, their only common attribute is a marked mutual antipathy. The middle brother, Margido, is an undertaker with a thriving business. He is single, with ample excuse for staying aloof from emotional entanglements, busy as he is making funeral arrangements and calming the bereaved.

The Norwegian writer Anne Ragde's novel opens as Margido deals with the distraught parents of a teenage suicide. He is too busy to consider visiting his elder brother Tor, and their aged parents at the family farm. Not that Margido's neglect bothers Tor, who seems happiest in the pig shed in the company of his favourite sows. The youngest brother, Erlend, long ago fled small-town homophobia to live in Copenhagen, where he works as a window-dresser and has an obsessive attachment to Swarovski-crystal miniatures.

But family business cannot be avoided forever. When the Neshov matriarch, octogenarian Anna, suffers a stroke, a reunion follows and upheaval accumulates. The first of a series of shocking revelations comes in the form of Tor's grown-up daughter Torunn, a young woman who has never, to date, met her uncles or her grandparents.

The spare, beautiful scenery of northern Norway provides an apposite backdrop for the interactions of these estranged kin. Ragde's writing is self-effacing and subtly crafted, an ideal tool for splintering the brothers' stout outer panelling of Norwegian wood to expose the steamy saunas of turmoil within. The novel's subtext is plain enough: no one can avoid self-definition through family, however strenuously they might attempt to deny family ties. The straightforward message does not detract from Ragde's sophisticated exposition, not least because – woven around the unveiling of family secrets – is an adroit, slyly comic exploration of the paradoxes of Norwegian identity.

Prominent among them is an urge to remain close to nature, restrained only by a dependence on the benefits of urban living. Then there are the ways in which clinging to an independent outlook can run the risk of lapsing into stolid insularity. And that most admirable national trait plays its due part in the novel's resolution: a passion for fairness and consensus.

Ragde is a prolific writer, and Berlin Poplars won Norway's prestigious Riksmal Prize. If her other work is equally engrossing, it is high time for more of it to be translated here.