Book Review: Is Mother Dead – Vigdis Hjorth

Posted November 23, 2022 in Book Review

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Is Mother Dead

Vigdis Hjorth

Verso Books

The title of Is Mother Dead, Vigdis Hjorth’s new novel, is a clue to its elliptical and maddening contents. A question without question mark – without complaint, plea or pitch – it voices the uncertain grammar of one troubled mother-daughter relationship.

The story’s narrator Johanna left Norway and her controlling family in her twenties, seeking a new life as an artist in Utah. At first, she and her mother remain in sporadic contact. But when Johanna’s provocative painting ‘Mother and Child’ is exhibited in Oslo, and she doesn’t attend her father’s funeral, the two become estranged. Now in her sixties, widowed and ruminating on the past, Johanna returns to Oslo for a career retrospective. Despite repeated protestations that the turmoil ‘has all burned itself out in me now’, she becomes fixated on her mother and their lapsed relationship.

Is Mother Dead returns to the theme of family discord that animated Hjorth’s Will and Testament. It lacks the gravity of the earlier work, in which the rift centres on an accusation of sexual abuse. Is Mother Dead allows Hjorth greater scope to explore the psychology of a fractious intimacy. Johanna’s thoughts are conveyed in a breathless style which is both confiding and, like the book’s title, halting. Just as the reader may begin to feel tormented, Hjorth uses Johanna’s obsessions to propel the plot into a brilliant exposition of the contradictions of motherhood.

Words: Eve Hawksworth


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