Olga Ravn is thinking about work again. Her last novel, The Employees, was an unnerving sci-fi satire of corporate culture. It exhibits a series of witness statements, given by crew members both human and android, about an incident aboard a spacecraft. With it, Ravn opened an investigation into what it means to be alive and to labour. Now My Work, translated from the Danish by Sophia Hersi Smith and Jennifer Russell, brings these anxieties to bear on motherhood and maternal work.
Anna is pregnant. She gives birth. She cooks, cleans, breastfeeds. She takes her son to nursery, argues with her husband, and suffers from intrusive thoughts. She becomes pregnant again. The link between narrator and author is fuzzy: the novel begins with an unnamed person finding a pile of documents – diary entries, essays, poems, letters – written by Anna. Anna is the ‘I’ of ‘my work’, but is she really Olga Ravn? After the birth, Anna finds her identity splinters: ‘life was divided into separate entities that had to fight amongst themselves for the right to exist’.
This drama of mother and other is the novel’s major theme. Ravn’s accounting of the costs (‘I have bought the child/with my body’) is unflinching and necessary. It is also repetitive, meandering, even agonising. My Work is hard work, and it calls the reader also to labour for reward.
Words: Eve Hawksworth