Linn Ullmann: Before You Sleep

Linn Ullmann
Before You Sleep
Viking

A FRIEND OF mine, an architect in his 30s, will only read fiction about sexual relationships. He's well-educated, an intellectual even, but other types of novels and short stories leave him cold. And the more pain in the relationships depicted, the better. "Otherwise," he says, "it's boring."

It would be safe to guess that my friend would appreciate Linn Ullmann's family history Before You Sleep, a tale with enough liquor and loveless couplings to fill a contemporary American memoir--or an hour of daytime television. The title refers to the seemingly more innocent scenes that frame the book, as the narrator, Karin Blom, tries to coax her nephew to sleep even though his mother hasn't called as she pledged to do.

But then few people do what they're supposed to in this fast-paced novel by Norwegian literary critic Ullmann, the daughter of director Ingmar Bergman and actor Liv Ullmann. Funny and insightful, and at times fantastical, the novel tells the melancholy history of the Blom family. As Karin, a twentysomething inheritor of family pain, puts it: My mother "drank to forget. I drank to be happy. Father drank just to keep going. Grandma drank to sleep better at night. Aunt Selma drank to be even meaner than she already was."

Ullmann gives her cast plenty of reasons to drink. Aunt Selma is still getting over being jilted by Karin's grandfather in the 1930s, when the family lived in New York (though the rest of the family won't admit the two were lovers); Karin's father is unable to maintain his relationships; and Karin's mother Anni is cursed with being irresistible: "There are plenty of things you can have too much of. Irresistible is one of those things."

The first half of the book, set mainly in Norway, flashes back from the wedding day of Karin's fragile sister Julie to their childhood, while the second half moves between the present and the earlier part of the century, when the family lived in New York. But it's the present where Ullmann is at her best, deftly describing the foibles of a family set emotionally adrift.

Like her mother, Karin wields power over men by seducing them. At her sister's wedding, in a nightspot, at a grocery store, Karin uses her will and her singing ability to lure men into bed. Sex, for Karin, appears to involve a little bit of desire and a whole lot of power. There's little long-term satisfaction in these trysts, but for the reader, there's a lot of entertainment. In one scene, she succeeds in pulling off her short-term boyfriend's cowboy boots, only to find that without them he turns into a fish.

Such shifts in appearance are a common element in Before You Sleep. Anni is obsessed with them: She is bitterly disappointed with the odd bodily features of Karin's sister Julie but can't allow herself to admit it. Later, she travels to America and gets a macabre face-lift done by a plastic surgeon who made his name operating on Imelda Marcos. Karin describes the grotesque results of this procedure with a clinical eye:

 

What should I tell you about Anni's face? At first I think it's me, that I've gotten something in my eyes, dust or dirt, but it just gets worse the longer I look at her, it starts to sting, like when you open both eyes underwater, or stare too long at a film that's out of focus. Everything is liquid.

 

Ultimately, Before You Sleep takes the same uncomfortable look at all its characters, suggesting that the attempt to transform oneself without attention to the emotions and spirit that rumble below the surface is likely to yield unsatisfying, even horrifying, results.

 
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