When Helga Flatland’s A Modern Family was published in 2017, she was already an established name in Norway. Her debut novel Stay If You Can. Leave if You Must from 2010 had been awarded the Tarjei Vesaas First Book Price, and A Modern Family went on to win her the Bookseller’s Prize. Translated by Rosie Hedger for Orenda Books, this is the 34-year-old’s first novel to be published in English.
The book details the lives of the adult siblings Liv, Ellen and Håkon in the aftermath of their parents’ divorce, which turns out to have massive repercussions for the three fully-grown yet deeply self-centred children. Liv, 40, has moulded her life on how she perceived her parents’ marriage to be, and their late divorce therefore feels like a betrayal of an ideal she has strived for all her adult life.
Ellen is in her late thirties and desperately trying to have a child. To her, the divorce comes to represent the dissolution of what she is seeking with increasing amounts of tortured anguish – a nuclear family with children. Håkon, who despite being 30 is still considered the child of the family, is critical of monogamous relationships and therefore initially seems strangely relaxed about his parents’ sudden split.
Flatland lets the perspective switch between the three siblings, which gives her an interesting opportunity to explore how they feel differently about the divorce – and each other. Liv withdraws and gets marital problems of her own, while the burden of childlessness suddenly weighs twice as heavy on Ellen, and soon Håkon starts doubting his own propaganda about the benefits of free love.
Not much fiction has been written about how divorce affects adult children, and this premise, together with the sibling’s shared perspective, invites a nuanced exploration of what goes unsaid in close relationships. However, this potential is lost due to Flatland’s habit of spelling out the characters’ thoughts and feelings clearly and unmistakably: ‘I often think of how different our childhoods have been and how it’s affected us’, Ellen thinks at one point while sitting next to Håkon, but this thought, as with most of the thoughts or meditations in the book, is not left unpacked for long.
The text is full of sentences like ‘I remember feeling that there was something scary and unfamiliar yet simultaneously reassuring in her words’, and very little is left for the reader to feel or interpret. At first I thought this might have to do with translation choices, and that the simplicity of Flatland’s prose had been rendered just simple, but Rosie Hedger has done nothing but maintain Flatland’s direct style, and can hardly be blamed for the occasional hammy phrasing (‘This image graces my retinas on a regular basis’).
There are moments of real intimacy in the book, and they are mostly concerned with Ellen’s childlessness. When visiting her new flat, her father casually asks what the spare room will be used for, ‘not sensing what the room might be missing, ten square metres teeming with fragments of unspoken hopes and expectations. Oh, Dad.’ It is in rare moments like this that the loving dynamic of the family, so often described but never really shown, is given the space to shine through.