Book review: Knots, by Gunnhild Øyehaug

24 10 2017

Gunnhild Øyehaug is a Norwegian academic, critic, editor and writer. She is a former editor of the Norwegian literary magazine Vagrant and has won the Dobloug Prize for her fiction. She has written four books to date, of which two (a novel and a short story collection) have been translated into English.


Knots (Knutar, 2004*, translated by Kari Dickson) is a slim volume of twenty-six short stories, vignettes, and pieces of flash fiction. It’s marked by a sense of the wry and absurd, and contains examples of both mundane and weird fiction (often within the same story). I won’t comment on each story individually, but will refer to various of the stories in my review.

The stories in Knots are peopled by frequently-bookish characters—there are numerous references to poetry and to literature—and governed, as often as not, by dream logic, with bizarre occurrences occurring in an unheralded (and mostly unexplained) fashion: one story, ‘Vitalie Meets An Officer’, concludes with the sudden arrival of a UFO, while another, ‘Taking Off, Landing’ relates (as an aside, and seemingly unrelated to the surrounding story) a character’s journeys to and from school every day through a tide of syrup. The text conveying these strange happenings is clipped, cut back to the basics: the vocabulary is simple and the sentence structure is unsophisticated (though there are many run-on sentences, which can leave the reader somewhat breathless). The oddness doesn’t always work, and sometimes isn’t needed. On the other hand, some of the shortest pieces, such as ‘The Deer At The Edge Of The Forest’ and ‘The Object Assumes An Exalted Place In The Discourse’, are, I think, successful purely because they are so strange and so resistant to classification, and the presentation, in ‘Transcend’, of an ill-advised liaison as a kind of mutated screenplay (in which even the scenery plays a role) seems inspired.

Though there are several thematic connections between the stories in Knots—literature, perception, sexual politics, the inertia of patterned behaviour—there are few more literal connections, with just two apparent pairs: ‘Taking Off, Landing’ and ‘Air’, in which prawn-and-egg merchant Geir first sees Asle jump off a quay into the icy water and then dithers about the best method to effect a rescue; and ‘Deal’ and ‘Two By Two’, which both feature salesman Alvin whose infidelity with longtime girlfriend Susanne is threatening to destroy his marriage to Edel. Even in these stories, there doesn’t seem to be sufficient depth of characterisation to show any of the participants as creatures of genuine solidity; rather, their purpose appears to be as shadow-play puppets designed to illuminate the generic oddity of humans. This flavour, I think, limits the collection, and robs it of some power.

As always with a collection, some stories appeal more than others. My particular favourites here are probably those that manage to convey a subversive sense of hope, as in the opening story ‘Nice and Mild’, which narrates a middle-aged slacker’s farcical, stream-of-consciousness excursion to IKEA to buy a set of blinds for his son’s room, and the claustrophobic ‘Overtures’, where Ragnhild seeks desperately to make it downstairs to the bathroom without getting waylaid by family members who will insist she play her granfather’s favourite music on the piano.

* This appears to be the generally-accepted date of first publication for the collection, although the book’s publication details page, which gives the original title as ‘Knutar+‘, lists the year of first publication in Norwegian as 2012.





4 responses

24 10 2017
Sue Bursztynski (@SueBursztynski)

You know, having a spaceship land suddenly is something I’ve advised my students to do if they can’t think of anything else. One of my Year 7 boys said he’d run out of steam and when I suggested he have a spaceship land he started typing away. It worked, too!

24 10 2017

I think what confounded me most about the UFO was its complete incongruity, somewhat like the police car that pulls up at the end of Monty Python And The Holy Grail. But then there’s quite a lot of incongruity throughout this collection …

25 10 2017
Sue Bursztynski (@SueBursztynski)

Maybe the author had run out of ideas. 😉

25 10 2017
Sue Bursztynski (@SueBursztynski)

Though come to think of it, Tanith Le’e’ first novel, Birthgrave, a heroic fantasy, also ended with the arrival of a spaceship. The heroine, who had major powers, had unwittingly pulled it down out of the sky to help her. Weird, but fun.

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