Lena Andersson (translated by Sarah Death)
Picador, €19.50; ebook, €10.20
ESTER NILSSON is a 31-year-old poet and essayist with eight slim but dense books to her name. Since her mid-20s, she has been sharing her life with Per, a man who satisfies her physical and mental needs while giving her all the space she needs to be herself. Her life is one of contentment, free of complication, and fixed to a precise sort of reality. Then one day she is asked to deliver a lecture on the work of an acclaimed video artist, Hugo Rusk — a talent that she has long admired.
On the day of the lecture, he actually appears, sitting in the front row and hungrily absorbing every word. His joy at her insight is overwhelming; after having spent so many weeks consuming details of his work and life, she finds herself falling for him. He seems interested in her as a person. Over the weeks that follow, they meet to talk for hours at a time, over increasingly intimate dinners or in his studio, and the relationship with Per simply cannot compete. The inevitable happens: talking stops and Ester and Hugo become lovers.
For a frenzied, passionate week, the world is as she needs it to be. She has never known love like this; consumed by the need for him, she can barely function when they are apart. But he isolates himself from her, claiming to be immersed in his work, and vanishes from the city every second weekend, allegedly to a bolt hole in the north of Sweden. He doesn’t return her calls, ignores her texts, and controls everything. When he snaps his fingers she comes running, and when it stops she feels destroyed. But their paths continue to cross.
Having escaped to Paris to lick her wounds, her phone rings with his number. It is an accidental call, and she is forced to listen to studio chat, laughter and the tinkling of glasses. Weeks later, there is an encounter in a cafe near his home. He speaks as if nothing has happened, as if there is still something between them. It is clear that there are other women, a fact he no longer bothers even to deny, but the softness of his tone, and the suggestion of his words fills her with hope. So, moving on is impossible.
Wilful Disregard, Lena Andersson’s fifth novel, is a compelling read, a deeply philosophical book that attempts to make sense of love in the modern world, in terms of what is entitled and what is owed. The narrative limits itself to Ester’s perspective, but at a third-person remove that allows for a necessary sense of disconnection.
Neither Ester nor Hugo are admirable characters, though both are wonderfully rounded. Hugo is egotistical, manipulative and deeply insecure, surrounding himself with sycophantic types and railing endlessly against injustice from the comfort of his vaunted position. Ester, guilty of doing to Per what Hugo has done to her, might define herself in terms of art and aestheticism, but what she perceives as depth is, in the eyes of much of the world, the very definition of shallowness. As a person, she is obsessional, demanding but also, in her way, extremely fragile. And very human.
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