Alma is a middle-aged textile artist living by herself near the sea in a picturesque part of Norway. To help with her finances, she rents out an annex to her house. She lets the annex to a young Polish woman, her boyfriend and young child. To begin with she prides herself on being broad-minded, happy to rent the place out to low-wage people with perhaps a tenuous legal status, but she can’t quite live up to this. She needs the rent but she doesn’t really want to share her space with strangers – the fact that the Polish woman can’t speak Norwegian, doesn’t help, especially when the woman is the victim of domestic violence and the boyfriend breadwinner moves out. Alma comes to a new rental agreement with the woman with the social services involved. Alma gets slightly annoyed when officialdom takes the side of “the Pole”, as she calls her, although it’s Alma’s house.
Vigdis Hjorth is very good at doing low-level conflict. In her later novel Will and Testament, it is between siblings over the wills of their parents. Alma is not a bad person, in fact she’s funny and a serious creative, but certain things such as the Polish woman running radiators at full bore, while Alma herself is parsimonious and pays the electricity bills, drives her mad. Alongside the growing tension between the two women, Alma muses over her tapestries such as one for her old school and one for the Constitutional committee for a Norwegian anniversary. I found the description of the creative process and how ideas are worked up into creative pieces to be totally absorbing, no mean feat.
Alma is aware of her privileged position vis-à-vis her Polish tenant who works as a cleaner and is a single mother (Alma is divorced and has grown-up children) yet there is an almost insurmountable barrier between them. Alma reflects on what the Pole must think of her – half-drunk, sleep-deprived when working on her commissions, a haphazard housekeeper while the Pole keeps the annex neat as a pin, although overstuffed with gee-gaws, to Alma’s distain.
Things come to a head when the Pole’s husband returns from prison and, after ignoring Alma or putting up with her, Slawomira (as we find out the Pole is called) begins to fight back. Alma has based her Constitutional tapestry on a nineteenth century story she’d read about a woman trapped in an unhappy marriage who runs away and is caught and sent to an asylum where she commits suicide. Again, Hjorth does a great job of showing us Alma’s thought process here and how she converts it to a visual work. As Alma becomes frantic about making her deadline and what the Poles might do next, the themes of the book coalesce. I loved Alma. I related to her angst, her self-reliance, her will to be generous and her justifications for not being, her nice line in self-mockery. She’s messy and fallible. Hjorth’s enjoyable deadpan narration keeps what is a fairly slight story, in plot terms, bubbling along.