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Child Wonder - Book of the Month

by Roy Jacobsen

I tired, long ago of novels written as though by a small girl. There seemed to be a spate of them, and oh, how clever and witty these small girls were! But CHILD WONDER is completely different. For one thing it is written by a man, and it is about a small boy who is growing up in the 1960s in a poor district just outside Oslo "when a social-democratic welfare state was no more than a vague and desperate idea"... It is the year that the Berlin Wall is erected and Yuri Gagarin makes man's first journey into space.

Finn, a six-year-old, lives with his attractive widowed mother in an apartment block. They are trying to improve their flat by hanging some wallpaper which they can't really afford, when Finn's mother decides to take a lodger, in defiance of the delicate balance they have achieved in their family of two.

The lodger is almost a mistake, but just as things are beginning to work out, Mother plumps down on a kitchen chair and announces that he has a sister. Actually he has known about this half-sister, vaguely aware that she is somewhere out there enjoying the widow's pension that should have been theirs. Her name is Linda, and she is almost as old as Finn. Very gently, Mother explains that Linda's mother, a hairdresser, is not only a widow, but also a drug addict, and she can no longer look after her child.

But: "Is she going to live here?"

And all at once it seems to Finn that he and his mother are strangers speaking sensibly about how to cope with another stranger, a girl called Linda, the daughter of a crane driver (killed in an accident) who also happens to be his father.

Although this smacks of a triumph for Mother over the person who had gone off with her crane driver husband and who was perhaps the indirect cause of his falling to his death, it was not an easy decision to make. Finn asks about the widow's pension. "No, we won't see any of that," Mother says. Finn wonders if she is secretly fulfilling her old longing to have had a daughter. And he cannot understand why he is secretly looking forward to an event which a mere two weeks ago would have seemed like a catastrophe: having a sister, a little sister.

Once the lodger has been sorted out (Kristian, their new source of income, the tram conductor and ex-seaman, ex-toolmaker,, ex-construction worker, trade union man, tent-owner and wear-and-tear philosopher in a poplin mac), and the top half of Finn's bunk bed has been brought down from the loft, they are ready for the new arrival.

She arrives by bus. Alone. She is small and fat and quiet with eyes that bore into the tarmac. She smells, her hair is unkempt, and Finn's mother falls in love with her, and cries when she looks at her.

Linda changes everything, not only in her own existence, but in Finn's and Mother's and even Kristian's.

In writing this novel Roy Jacobsen reveals a deep love and understanding of children, and a powerful ability to tell a story. The theme of the book is "how to lose one's innocence without losing one's soul". It is a beautiful book, I loved it, and I can't wait to find the translations of his other books.

He has twice been nominated for the Nordic Council's Literary Award: for SEIERHERRENE in 1991 and FROST in 2003, and in 2009 he was shortlisted for the Dublin Impac Award for THE BURNT-OUT TOWN OF MIRACLES.

Paula McMaster

Published by Maclehose Press. Hardback. 277pp.

Read our interview with Roy Jacobsen.


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