One Last Time by Helga Flatland

‘The realisation that Mum is going to die hits me in different ways each day.’

Imagine a family tree, with the sixty-seven-year-old Anne as its core. The strong, independent and tenacious woman. Guided by the flows of nature and seasonal weather. She’s married to Gustav who after several strokes over a couple of decades had to finally be moved to a nursing home. Anne never fails to visit him daily. Then there are her two adult children. Magnus lives alone in Stavanger and works offshore. Sigrid, his younger sister lives in Oslo with her partner Aslak, and two children, a headstrong four-year-old son Viljar and an unpredictable nineteen-year-old daughter Mia. Sigrid becomes very unsettled by the arrival of Jens in town, Mia’s father of who hasn’t been on horizon for most of the girl’s life while Aslak happily took on the parenting responsibilities to be with Sigrid. Family dynamics evolve as time goes on and different aspects of personalities develop and interact with the outside world. Mentioning the age of each character is quite important in view of what’s going to hit them very soon, and how they react to the shocking upsetting news.

And now if you could try to imagine the location, an old farm in a village in the mountains, by the lake, quite a distance from both big cities of Stavanger and Oslo, a village which evokes various emotions and memories for the grown-up siblings, and which becomes a focus in the lives of the people connected by blood and rock-solid emotional ties, even if they seem frayed. They keep going back to the place where Anne lives because she has just been diagnosed with terminal cancer and each event in a typical course of the year, in a usual social calendar might be her last. Last Christmas, last Easter, last holiday, last morning swim in the lake?

‘I drive back and fourth between Mum and Oslo, […] driving through morning fog and a surprising flicker of hope over Geilo, through autumn rain and paralysing anxiety in Hønefoss, through blinding afternoon sunshine and grief in Lærdal, through the nights, the mornings, the days, the emotions, back and forth to Mum.’

Magnus and Sigrid take different approach to arranging practicalities for their mother who stubbornly clings to life and own sense of freedom, while they both try to understand what’s happening and how can they cope with the incoming loss. What’s interesting in their conversations and concerns is that they perceive past in a completely different way. Sigurd’s point of view takes precedence in the novel as she cannot escape the feeling of being abandoned, neglected, unloved. Since Gustav’s first stroke, Anne’s attention has been on caring for him, which left very little energy and time on for children. Anne’s total breakdown marred Sigrid’s teenage years who then was left by Jens and had to adapt and change her dreams. But now as a doctor dealing with fragile patients and her own dying mother, she hopes for some kind of reconciliation in terms of memories and recollections, some admission of guilt from her mother, and an apology. But Anne isn’t ready for that as illness, loneliness and death take precedence: ‘I feel certain that Sigrid’s memories of her upbringing grow more painful and terrible every time that I fail to apologise, but I’ve realised that it’s useless to try to dispute her memory of events, or to integrate them with my own, at any rate.’ Sigrid feels that her own existence unravels as the days pass and her pragmatic persona struggles with the overflowing emotions: ‘I picture Mum in the kitchen at home, surrounded by her new loneliness, alone in an ailing body.’ In the mixture of fractured relationships, questions about ordinary mundane tasks and re-examining of deep uncomfortable truths, Mia’s attitude angers her mother but is met with stoic calm by her grandmother. Three generations of women rethink loss and love.

One Last Time in Rosie Hedger’s exquisite translation from Norwegian, written beautifully and sensitively, with glimpses of gentle humour and huge dose of empathy, is a book to be treasured and enjoyed slowly, focusing on small gems of wisdom, just like Helga Flatland’s previous novel A Modern Family.

Published by Orenda Books. One Last Time and One Last Time

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