Is Mother Dead
Verso Fiction | October 25, 2022
“All children depend on their mother for their survival and will, as a result, be forever vulnerable to her, body and soul,” writes Vigdis Hjorth’s in her latest novel, Is Mother Dead. Hjorth examines these fraught dynamics between mother and child through the lens of Johanna, a nearly sixty-year-old artist who has not spoken to her mother (or anyone in her family) for thirty years. “The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world,” says Johanna’s mother. But what do we do when that hand is the one closing the door in our face, sending us into exile?
Johanna’s exile was, at first, self-imposed: she left the predictable, stable life her family had cosigned to follow her art teacher-turned-lover to America and pursue painting. And while this betrayal of familial expectation warranted a disparaging letter from her family, her mother and sister were still willing to communicate sparingly for a few years. But then, Johanna released a series of paintings entitled “Child and Mother” that vaguely depicted their fraught relationship and, to make matters worse, failed to return to Norway for her father’s funeral. The day after the funeral, communication ceased entirely. The portrait Hjorth draws of Johanna’s estrangement is complex, namely in how her family is not interested in her reasons or explanations: that she had “painted the pictures to ensure [her] own survival,” that her own husband was in the hospital when her father died, and that no family member ever asked her, in so many words, to come home for her father’s funeral. Both parties are only interested in the truths they are telling.
Thirty years later and recently widowed, Johanna returns to Oslo in preparation for a retrospective of her art. She rents an apartment less than three miles from her mother’s home, and one night, after a few glasses of wine, decides to give her a call. Her mother doesn’t pick up, but Johanna keeps calling. In absence of direct contact, she begins to craft elaborately imagined stories of her mother’s life. She says, “I use words to create my image of you.” When the words are no longer enough, she finds her mother’s apartment in an address book and parks outside her building, determined to turn her imagined image into flesh and bone. She wonders: What does her mother look like now? Has she aged well or poorly? Is her hair still red like Johanna’s or has she let it go grey? Gradually, what started as unanswered phone calls escalates to full-blown stalking. She hides in the bushes, follows her mother onto the train, and even looks through her trash, piecing together the clues of her mother’s existence as if it could mirror her own.
Here, Hjorth does not pretend to offer a reliable narrator telling the facts exactly as they happened—memory overwhelms the present, fact and fiction blur, and we can sense the past closing in on Johanna just as she closes in on her mother: “I wake up bathed in sweat and I understand that our earlier relationship has survived in me, that my former dependency on her, which I simultaneously treasured and detested, still lives in me.” Here, we recall the name of the book: is mother dead? No, not for Johanna. Whether she lives across the sea or a short drive away, her mother is still there, viscerally alive in her.
Hjorth has masterfully written a family drama where no reunion takes place and a thriller where no blood is shed. Hjorth’s prose keeps us on edge, puncturing breathless sentences that stretch to half a page with four-word questions that undercut everything she previously said. There is a sense of inescapable claustrophobia: returning again and again to her mother’s apartment, returning again and again to the looping questions and memories that have plagued her since childhood. Johanna is relentless in her pursuit of answers; one can feel the sense of urgency with each page we turn—if she does not get these thoughts onto the page, if she does not talk to her mother, what will happen to her? Johanna’s thoughts have not been curated and well-digested but rather spit out onto the page, like a furiously filled diary that will be burned as soon as it is finished. Alongside Johanna, we are trapped inside her spiraling brain. If there is no escape for her then there will be no escape for us either.
Is Mother Dead does not conclude with a neat bow: there is no resolution for Johanna. However, one gets the sense that by the end of the novel, Johanna has exhausted her energy so fully that she is ready to wave a white flag, acknowledging, “Mum is dead in me, yet still she stirs from time to time.” Closure, Hjorth appears to be saying, is a myth—we may think we’ve packed everything neatly away into boxes only to find ourselves trespassing into an old neighbor’s yard, digging through the snow to unearth the cigar box in which we once stashed secret notes. So what do we do with the memories and relationships that plague us? Do we stalk them down the street, hoping to catch but never be caught? Or do we retreat, trusting it is enough to simply write it down—to find others who may connect, or at the very least bear witness?
We can never escape the past and we can never regain what was lost, but Hjorth argues we can, through writing, art, and memory, make some sense of what we have left. The novel concludes with Johanna’s memories hanging in the air, sending us swirling through our murky memories and into the “isms” our own mothers likely lobbed on us as children. But this, it appears, is exactly what Hjorth intended. “Reality is uninteresting,” she writes. “The true value of the work [lies] in its effect on the observer.” Is Mother Dead leaves the reader so fully enveloped in Johanna’s mind that it is as if we are there, shivering in the Norwegian winter with her. I found myself calling my mom when I finished the last page, asking for a recipe she used to make when I was growing up, a recipe I was suddenly craving.