Kristine Naess’s Only Human delves into female fear and angst on the streets of Oslo

The mystery of a missing girl is the lynchpin in this tale of three Nordic women struggling to make sense of their lives and failed relationship.

People cross an Oslo street at night-time. Naess’s latest novel in English translation, which is plotted around the disappearance of a 12-year-old girl, is set in the Norwegian capital. Tomm W. Christiansen / Bloomberg
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It is an early morning in Oslo and in houses all across the city, televisions bring news of the recent disappearance of a 12-year-old girl by the name of Emilie. A day has passed since she was last seen. Information regarding her whereabouts is scant. It is feared “something gruesome has happened, something out of the ordinary”. On street after street, people are “checking the Net more often than usual and turning on the TV to watch the evening news, anxious to hear the latest”.

Among the many souls preoccupied by Emilie’s story is the figure of Bea Britt, a divorced writer who is “getting on in years” and lives alone in what was once her grandmother’s house.

When we encounter her at the start of Kristine Naess’s new novel, which was shortlisted for the Nordic Literature Prize and has been translated into English by Seán Kinsella, we follow her as she moves through her house to the sound of the latest news bulletins. She makes her way into the garden where, earlier that day, she had been alarmed by the presence of some strange men from the Red Cross. “They were searching for a person.”

Bea does “not dare to ask whom”, but deduces that the person in question is Emilie, who was last seen walking her poodle on the paths that run behind Bea’s house.

Bea has seen her on similar walks many times before. At this point, she starts to wonder about the identity and motivation of Emilie’s assailant. She suspects a peculiar neighbour. But before she has pursued the thought at much length, her rumination gives way to a reflection on the life of her grandmother, Cecilie, whom we first meet in the late-1930s.

Like each of the three women at the heart of Naess’s story, Cecilie is troubled and unhappy. Her marriage is faltering. She is afflicted by screaming fits: we read that “on the inside she is a solitary scream”. She wrestles with romantic feelings for her doctor. She is beset by the intimation that everything is “terrible” and that she and the world are “wicked”. We later learn that she used to be tormented by her father.

Then the narrative slips again and we find ourselves back in the present-day with Bea and her feelings. Like Cecilie’s, they are almost all unhappy, and often characterised by radical ambivalence.

Bea considers herself listless, self-hating, occasionally sociopathic and prone to an abhorrence of strangers. She is bitter and tender about her divorce. She longs to “disappear into the world” but is unsure whether she wants “anything at all”. She believes that “beautiful things do one good, and good things are painful”.

Bea loves and misses her children but feels that “Family life destroys everything.” This, she says, “is how you become a person”.

After quite a bit of this sort of thing, we encounter Beate (a university student and the daughter of Bea’s close friend) when she acts on an urge to visit Bea at her home. We learn that she feels she is lacking some “essential emotion”, fears losing her good looks and is desperate for love. She has recently started to take risks.

As the accounts of these three sensibilities develop, a picture unfurls of three spectacularly forlorn lives. Meanwhile, we are supplied with fragments of the latest news in the case of Emilie’s disappearance. The most important of these concerns the discovery of her backpack in Bea’s garden and her subsequent status as potential victim witness and suspect. Which will she be?

The resulting work is a peculiar affair. Naess is a good noticer: her narrative features several instances of vivid detail (“A wasp crawls over a congealed tea stain on the kitchen table”), and some of her characters’ thoughts and feelings are entertainingly described. But the book as a whole suffers from a lack of coherence. The meandering stories of Naess’s three main characters, though often refracted through the mind of Bea, seldom resonate convincingly with one another, and Naess’s prose is insufficiently vibrant to compensate for their lack of direction. This makes the mystery of Emilie’s fate feel like a distraction.

In the end, the experience of reading this book might best be likened to the sensations experienced watching rolling television coverage of a recent atrocity. There is just enough on offer to prevent you from changing the channel. But you never really feel you are getting the news.

Matthew Adams is a regular contributor to The Review.