The Outsider – Albert Camus / The Blue Room – Hanne Ørstavik

I’m back to doing double bill. My most recent reads are The Outsider by the Nobel prize winner French-Algerian Albert Camus, and the most recent release from Peirene Press: The Blue Room by Norwegian writer Hanne Ørstavik. Both are novellas, or short books – which is my favorite type of book in recent years. Both are also translated and the authors are originated from countries that I had not read before, so they add nicely to my Reading the World project.

The Outsider – Albert Camus

The Outsider - Albert Camus

In The Outsider (or The Stranger in some translation) we meet a main character who has trouble expressing any outer sign of grief at his mother’s funeral. Throughout the first half of the book we follow his day to day life at work and home, and his interactions with other people, in particular his neighbours who live in the same building, and his girlfriend. I like how the characters are described, and find that a couple of them to be memorable – like the grumpy old man with his dog, who look alike but dislike each other.

Just at the end of the first part, something happens, and the second part of the book is dealing with the repercussions of this incident. Details from the first part that seem a bit mundane are brought back to Meursault (our main character) and the reader, and used to explain his character and actions.

On one hand, I got slightly frustrated at how “cold” and how un-feeling Meursault is, how distant he is from the world and everyone else, but on the other hand, I felt for him, and I could see the absurdities of taking random everyday’s details to judge you as a character — and this is not even far off from real life. How could you say someone is of a “good” character by how he takes coffee or smokes?

In one sentence I would describe The Outsider as Catcher in the Rye for adults, but infinitely more interesting. It’s very thin and doesn’t take much time at all to read, even for me, and it could fill in a few of your reading goals, like the Nobel, foreign/translated fiction, and 1001 books, like it did mine. Lovely.

Mee’s rating: 4.5/5

The Blue Room – Hanne Ørstavik

The Blue Room - Hanne Ørstavik

I seem to catch the Peirene bug, because this is the second Peirene book I read this year (I read and reviewed The Dead Lake a while ago).

The Blue Room was pitched by Meike as such:

“The Blue Room tells the story of a woman who is locked in a room by her mother. I read The Blue Room first a couple of years ago in German translation. It was around the time when Fifty Shades of Grey was hitting record sales and I was struck by the similarity of sexual phantasies depicted in both books. However, while Fifty Shades glamorises submission phantasies (and is extremely poorly written), The Blue Room holds up a mirror to that part of the female psyche that yearns for submission. It shows how erotic phantasies are formed by the relationship with our parents, and then delves further to analyse the struggle of women to separate from their mothers.”

I have not and will not read 50 Shades of Grey, but the comparison intrigued me. What struck me most was how different my take was of the book. While there are a few flashes of the aforementioned “sexual phantasies” – so shocking they’d hit you like electric shock, they are very few and far in between. The theme that was more prevalent for me was the mother-daughter relationship. In a way, it’s almost like the Norwegian Amy Tan’s – mother-daughter tension, misunderstanding, and painful love, but in a Norwegian setting, even the way it is told felt cold.

With 160 pages long, it is novella on the long-ish side, and I found the first half to be on the slow side with rather distant characters. But as I entered the second half, I started to relate, and surprised myself by finding more things in the story that reminded me of my own mother and my relationship with her. At the end, I concurred with Meike’s take on the book that it “delves further to analyse the struggle of women to separate from their mothers”.

I could relate with the struggles, I could so relate, surprisingly, considering how different our background and theirs are. The surface of our struggles were very different, but the tension was familiar. The end was fantastic and would definitely divide people. I am on the opinion that mother’s love is often painful, but sometimes it’s exactly what you need to save you from the world, and from yourself.

Mee’s rating: 3.5/5


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