OCTOBER 1, 2019
CHILDREN HAVE NO POWER, and that is why novels about them can be so interesting. I am not talking about the kind of coming-of-age story where a child leaves the family home, and discovers her power in the wider world, encountering adventure or love or both, but rather of the kind where the girl stays where she grew up, learns, and wrestles with the mores of home, which are for her inescapable. There is no wider world. The question of such a book is: How will she respond? How well will she learn the rules — will they become natural laws for her, as they are for the adults in her life? Or will she instead do something forbidden, something perhaps even unimaginable?
Ellen, the 11-year-old narrator of Linda Boström Knausgård’s Welcome to America, translated by Martin Aitken, may never speak again. Her silence is an exertion of her power, such as it is: a way of insisting on herself, a rebellion against her beautiful, charismatic actress mother, who, in the face of darkness, insists they are “a family of light,” and who is “too big, too buoyant, too omnipotent by half.” To be silent is to resist Mum’s light-filled openness, and to call it out as a lie. Ellen’s silence is, at the same time, a response to fear and darkness: to the death of her father, whose mental illness had tormented the family, and whose death Ellen believes she caused by praying aloud to God that he would die. She is unsure, now, about language, which feels too powerful to be misused through everyday speech, especially in the hands of a growing, changing person like herself. She is watchful as to whether, and how, she might be becoming something other than a child.
Ellen has an older brother, who has also retreated: he nails his bedroom door shut and pees in bottles. The light and darkness of this family’s past emerges in flashes. Once, both children were popular, and Mum would allow them and their friends to roller-skate through all the rooms of their large apartment. There were also “[t]he festive occasions, visitors and friends. […] My dad’s smile as my brother pulled in another fish.” But Ellen was always scared of her father, whose mental illness manifested in incidents that worsened over the course of her childhood. His violence seems to have come from a place of sorrow more than rage, which made it pitiable as well as frightening. Dad “went too far with the bottle and became threatening.” Dad forced Ellen to stay in her chair and listen while he played a song that “explained his whole being.” Not allowed to go to the bathroom while he played, she wet herself. After the divorce, he continued to come to their home, including, one day, turning the gas on in their sealed apartment, perhaps trying to kill them. We learn about these events in flashbacks throughout the novel — I never had a complete sense of how or when one thing led to another.
In the present story, which begins after Dad has died and Ellen has begun her silence, the house opens up, lightens in ways that Ellen doesn’t trust, or feel included in, or know if she wants to be included in. Ellen’s brother brings home a girlfriend, unnailing his door to admit her and inviting her to dinner with their mother. A fire at the children’s school leads Ellen to write, for the first time since beginning her silence, a message to her mother in a notebook, which her mother takes as a breakthrough, the beginning of a change.
I liked living in the tomb of Ellen’s interiority, where ordinary household movements echo, questions linger and alter, and observations and hallucinations mingle. Ellen notes the going-on in her house with the desperate interest of a captive and the distant precision of a scientist: “I heard mum open the door into the hall. In a moment she would say goodbye to her pupil, then come into the kitchen. My brother heard her too, I saw the way he stiffened. Mum’s footsteps, so energetic.” Ellen’s observations of the gentle movement of time and of her own mind in the quiet are rendered with lush sensitivity, which comes through nicely in Aitken’s graceful translation:
The night wrapped me up inside it, drew me back to bed with its darkness. I listened to the sound of my breathing as it slowed, then drifted into sleep, wading into the water, my dress held up above my knees, crossing over to the island where we bathed when we were away at the cabin. The island where mum had discovered you were allowed to be naked. Only women and children bathed there. The water, salt and sweet, cold and warm against my bare skin.
The women-and-children-only beach is dream and memory — a safe, matriarchal, Edenic state. It’s impossibly distant in the dark apartment, and also magically present for Ellen through the power of her silent watchfulness, her quiet agency that’s almost not agency at all.
When I think of other novels of girls at home — girls under some weird childhood spell, with confused answers to their questions about how their family and their world is constructed and/or about what they themselves are going to become — I think of novels with built-in countdowns, whose heroines are headed for a rude awakening, that the reader knows to wait for, although the heroine does not. Our knowledge is sped by tricks of point-of-view, as well as by our grown-up savvy. Frankie, in Carson McCullers’s The Member of the Wedding, is disturbed by the news of her older brother’s engagement, which puts a point on her desire to belong and also to escape, as well as on her questions about how the “groups” into which all normal people — everyone except her — belong, get formed. She decides that the solution to her existential angst is that she will join the newlyweds, she will go off with them after the wedding, making a third. As readers, we are counting down to the wedding and, also, to the end of summer: Frankie will be disillusioned as to how marriage (and heteronormative group-formation more generally) work; Frankie will cease wandering the hot streets of her town in a fever dream, and go back to school. Maisie, in Henry James’s What Maisie Knew, is being passed from parent to parent and then stepparent to stepparent in an elaborate, adult game of sex and power that she is learning how to survive, but that we are waiting for her to fully understand. We know exactly into what culture both children are about to be received, and we wonder where and how it will hurt, when they come to know it, too.
Ellen, in Welcome to America, faces, curiously, no threat from the world: no moment that we know to wait for when the safe-yet-dangerous space of her mind will, due to some force from outside of herself, become too difficult to keep inside. A suggestion by her mother, that they make an appointment with a “specialist” disappears before it becomes real. A meeting with the headmaster of Ellen’s school, who tells Ellen and her mother that unless she begins to speak or turn in work, she won’t be able to go on to the seventh grade, feels low stakes, easily neutralized by her mother’s outrage: “You’re wasting our time, and if I didn’t know better I’d think the only reason you called us in here was to satisfy your own personal curiosity.” Intrusions move over Ellen’s inner life like waves. Her brother’s new girlfriend, the first “break in our daily lives,” stops coming, and the brother retreats to his room. Ellen’s mother is sometimes desperately worried about Ellen, grabbing her and saying, “You’ve got no right to do this.” Other times, the mother doesn’t seem focused on Ellen when she approaches her in the kitchen. The brother’s girlfriend, we learn after the fact, only came to the house twice, which surprised me as a reader, because her presence was marked as such an important change.
There is a power to this structure — a visceral sense of being submerged, with Ellen, at the bottom of a sea. But at the same time, I think that we readers lose out, by not being able to measure the depth of the sea, or the distance from shore, or to know what the culture is like back on land. It makes it hard to know how to take anything. “Ulrich,” Ellen says, of Mum’s boyfriend. “When did he go? It was like I’d forgotten him before he even left. Mum seemed to have forgotten him too, I couldn’t see that she was unhappy, or that she missed him.” This development should tell us something interesting about Mum — something perhaps about her distraction, self-involvement, independence, grief, or abiding concern about her children. Mum was, at first, after all, absorbed and transformed by Ulrich’s presence: Ellen notes, “I saw the way they lit up the apartment and felt this new contentment would last forever.” But before the line about his disappearance, Ulrich has only appeared on three of the novel’s 111 pages; by the time we learn that the characters have forgotten him, we readers have also forgotten him, and it feels like the novel has, as well. How much better, if we’d been able to mark the ease with which they accepted his absence, rather than just hearing about it. Similarly, there are several instances of pee and several of fire. Ellen pees her pants coming home from school, and she pees her pants when Dad won’t let her go to the bathroom. The school catches fire; the country cabin catches fire; the house also gets filled with carbon monoxide, which feels like a similar gesture to fire — but all of these, too, fail to pack the punch that they could. They repeat and crowd one another rather than echo or accumulate. As with Ulrich’s disappearance, the reader does not feel the impact of the breakdown they are meant to represent.
When novels don’t define the terms on which they want readers to take events, then we apply our own ideas about what any given turn in the story — a breakup, say, or a parent’s distraction — means, as well as how much it matters in our own “real” world. In my world, a school administrator who suggests that a child who hasn’t spoken or written in months may not be able to graduate, and may need professional help, is not out of line, and a mother who acts like they are, is perhaps being irresponsible about her daughter’s mental health. I’m happy for these things to have a different valence here, in the world of this novel: for this headmaster to be flush with morbid curiosity about the beautiful, widowed actress and her mysteriously silent daughter; for the mother to be right, in a free-spirited, anti-authoritarian, roller-skating-in-the-house way, that the best help for her child is that she be left to her own devices and to speak when she is ready; for this to be a triumphant scene, of mother and daughter rightfully aligned against the world. But I don’t know. Is it right for this special “family of light” to turn inward to heal, or is their inwardness a troubling result, partly, of Mum’s insistence on their specialness — an insistence that has been painted, elsewhere, as willfully blind and perhaps dangerous? I’m happy for the answer to be either, or, even better, some complex combination of both. I’m also happy for the answer to be unclear to Ellen. But for the reader, it has to be clear in its complexity, and ambiguous without being murky.
Ellen will break her peaceful, troubled silence if and when she wants to, which makes her more autonomous than many children and child protagonists. I wish that, rather than letting Ellen’s autonomy weaken the novel’s tension, making it so that no reality interrupts her inner work, Boström Knausgård had instead treated her protagonist’s autonomy as a source of tension and as a particular crucible forming her, as she comes of age.