It is inside a London bookshop that I scan the first few pages of Hanne Ørstavik’s The Blue Room. Standing near a large shelf filled with Peirene Press books, the introduction tells me ‘everyone who has read Fifty Shades of Grey should read this book.’ I look over my shoulder. I’m someone who has read Fifty Shades of Grey. I don’t buy the book based on that—not entirely based on that—because while paging through, I can see The Blue Room is about much more than sensationalizing the complexities of sexuality. Ørstavik’s protagonist Johanne, tells an intricate and disturbing story about relationships, the end result being as far away from Fifty Shades of Grey as Christian Grey is to vanilla sex (at least in the first book).
The Blue Room begins from behind the locked door of Johanne’s small blue bedroom on the morning she is supposed to travel from Oslo to America with her boyfriend, Ivar. At first, Johanne blames a few maintenance issues for her confinement—a faulty doorknob, a rickety lock—though as the narrative progresses, in reverse, it is clear that something rather sordid has unfolded. Johanne’s mother (a hypocritical woman with an unexplained past and an equally mysterious, sexy wardrobe) has locked her away, reminiscent of a princess in a tower. Johanne’s tower slowly constricts as she recalls the weeks leading up to her imprisonment. Disquieting memories and fantasies join together unreliably but never lacking richness, and it is with great control that Ørstavik allows the reader to be within Johanne’s world. Johanne, feeling conflicted about her studies and her new relationship, all while facing her mother’s manipulation, begins to experience emotional and physical distress, the culmination of which leaves her shattered.
Meike Ziervogel, a publisher for Peirene Press, problematically writes, ‘The Blue Room holds up a mirror to a part of the female psyche that yearns for submission.’ Having kept that introduction in mind while reading, I disagree that Johanne ‘yearns for submission.’ Despite that reference to Fifty Shades of Grey, Johanne’s sexual experiences with Ivar involve no submissiveness at all; instead it is her mother who forces her into a submissive state. However, this is not something Johanne longs for and despite some anxiety, she is transparent in regard to her ache for independence. Eventually Johanne, who once felt so much, ‘feels nothing.’ If here lies the connection between The Blue Room and Fifty Shades of Grey, I feel mislead. If any connection must be made, although I feel in this situation it is unnecessary and Ørstavik can stand quite firmly on her own, it would be between Johanne and Christian, not Johanne and Anna. The psychological layers of The Blue Room give the reader pause to consider deeply rooted questions of reliability, abuse, intimacy, and pleasure.
Translated from Norwegian, Like sant som jeg er virkeling is one of 14 novels written by Hanne Ørstavik. A sharp writer with brilliant pacing, Ørstavik’s understanding of psychology is seamlessly woven into Johanne’s narrative. Because of this, Johanne’s fantasies, infrequent and vivid, verge on troubling, not sexy. ‘I cannot get out,’ explains Johanne at the start of The Blue Room. Johanne feels profoundly trapped: she cannot not get out of her room, out from under her mother’s grasp, or out and away from her own thoughts. At the end of Ørstavik’s novella, I found myself thinking of Johanne and longing for wide-open spaces.
You can find The Blue Room here (but also check out the nearest bookstore).