Oceans of Time by Merete Morken Andersen, trans Barbara J Haveland

Grief observed by moonlight
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When 16-year-old Ebba commits suicide, she leaves behind as much confusion as guilt. Ebba is an outwardly mature, easygoing girl, seemingly reconciled to her parents' divorce, on good terms with her stepmother and devoted to her half-sister, Jennifer. Her suicide note, addressed to Jennifer when she too reaches 16, provides no clue to her state of mind other than the statement that "there's so much pain".

The Norwegian writer Merete Morken Andersen's exceptional novel makes no attempt to probe the mystery behind Ebba's action. Instead, she focuses on the parents, Judith and Johan, telling the story of their marriage and examining their responses to their daughter's death. The bulk of the narrative takes the form of alternating monologues in which each speaks to Ebba. Its most poignant moment comes when Johan, realising that his use of the present tense is inappropriate, changes a "do" into a "did".

Rather than attempting to understand Ebba's motives, both parents are at pains to explain their own. Johan supplies a full, if belated, account of their meeting in the town hall gardens when Judith was a young violinist and he worked in the more prosaic world of computers.

From the start, he felt excluded from Judith's relationship with her mother, whom he names the Moon Queen. He resents their worship of art, which Judith regards as embodying "all those things which only a person of some refinement could truly appreciate". Three years after Ebba's birth, Johan leaves home to live with Minna, a librarian, who is as amenable as Judith is exacting.

Andersen's treatment of both parents, while sympathetic, is not even-handed. Somewhat unusually for a woman writer, she is highly critical of matriarchy. The bond between Judith and her mother is shown to be destructive, and Judith egotistical even in her grief: "Who will come to visit me and buy me flowers for Mother's Day?"

Though the novel ends with a partial reconciliation of the male and female principles, it is clear that Judith's desire to spend time with Johan and Minna poses a new threat. The intimacy of the narrative and rawness of emotions are underpinned by a strong mythological framework. The frequent references to Mozart's The Magic Flute, not to mention Johan's allusions to the Moon Queen, highlight a central conflict that mirrors that between Sarastro and the Queen of the Night in the opera. Johan's intellectual attempt to link Mozart's Freemasonry to the Eleusinian rituals of ancient Greece underlines the similarities between Demeter, determined to rescue Persephone from Hades, and Judith, fearful that she has lost Ebba first to her father and then to death.

Oceans of Time is an intensely moving novel, written in pellucid prose. Both the simplicity of Andersen's style and the sophistication of her analysis make it a distinguished addition to the spate of recent fictions about the death of children. Johan writes of The Magic Flute that, at dramatic moments, it employs a lot of thunder "as if Mozart hadn't trusted his audience to get the point". Andersen's powerful use of understatement shows that she trusts her readers to get hers.

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