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Days in the History of Silence by Merethe Lindstrøm

First published in Norway in 2011.  Published in translation by Other Press on August 27, 2013.

Days in the History of Silence is an unflinching examination of a woman's colorless, regret-filled life, her adoption or acceptance of shared solitude as a shield against pain. As she tells her story, it becomes apparent that the shield is a poor barrier. Other choices might serve her better, but ingrained habits are difficult to unlearn.

Eva has retired from her job as a high school teacher of Norwegian. Her husband Simon is surrendering to a form of dementia characterized by a disturbing silence. "It is not the feeling that he is no longer there," Eva thinks. "It is the feeling that you are not either." Eva has always been afraid that Simon would one day disappear; now she wonders if this is Simon's way of doing just that. Years earlier, Simon suffered from depression, a byproduct of surviving the war as a child by hiding in a concealed room (a time when silence protected him from discovery) and of bearing the guilt of his survival when so many of his friends and family "were crossed out of history." Now he goes days before articulating a random word, as if he is challenging Eva to find its meaning, perhaps to explain to him the meaning of his life.

If Eva is not as deeply depressed as Simon was, she is at least full of woe. She tells us about unsettling childhood and marital experiences. She thinks about the son she gave away. She makes gloomy observations of the life that surrounds her. Although she believes herself to be different from her husband, the reader comes to question the accuracy of that belief. Eva thinks she talks "all the time," but as her daughter points out, she never reveals her thoughts. She might be loquacious but she is isolated, even from her children.

The novel's central conflict arises from Eva's need to decide whether to place Simon in a home for the elderly, to "give him away" as she gave away her son. Eva is clearly capable of acting as Simon's caretaker, but she thinks "our solidarity has something suspect about it now." As the novel unfolds, a secondary conflict develops as Eva tells us about Marija, the undocumented Latvian they hired to help with household chores, a woman whose companionship substituted for friendship in Eva's friendless life. The decision to fire Marija after three years of employment, and the anger it instilled in her three daughters, weighs heavily on Eva's mind. Eva refuses to explain the decision to her daughters, and while that refusal seems inexplicable to the reader, it is consistent with Eva's inability to reveal herself to them.

The reason for Marija's termination goes unexplained until near the novel's end. Given the buildup and the event's centrality to the story, Merethe Lindstrøm must have intended the explanation to have more force than it delivers. Still, this is a novel of striking images and metaphors, particularly Eva's memory of a young intruder who, despite Eva's perception of a threat, may have only been "seeking refuge" or "searching for someone, or something" -- just as Eva and Simon have spent (or wasted) their lives doing. Some moments in the story are exceptionally poignant (as when Eva checks her husband for a pulse even though she can see him breathing). Yet there is no balance here, no spark of happiness or hope to offset the unremitting melancholy, and while some lives are like that, reading about them can be an emotionally oppressive (albeit intellectually rewarding) chore. For that reason Days in the History of Silence is a novel I admire rather than love, but there is much here to admire.


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