Source: Review copy
Publication: 13 June from Orenda Books
When Liv, Ellen and Håkon, along with their partners and children, arrive in Rome to celebrate their father’s seventieth birthday, a quiet earthquake occurs: their parents have decided to divorce.
Shocked and disbelieving, the siblings try to come to terms with their parents’ decision as it echoes through the homes they have built for themselves, and forces them to reconstruct the shared narrative of their childhood and family history.
A bittersweet novel of regret, relationships and rare psychological insights, A Modern Family encourages us to look at the people closest to us a little more carefully, and ultimately reveals that it’s never too late for change…
Well. Oh my goodness. A Modern Family feels like someone just held up a mirror to every family, everywhere. Not my family, obviously. Just because I have a younger brother and sister does not mean we are in any way like this family.
And yet. This family is like any family you might encounter. When Sverre and Torill bring their family together to celebrate Sverre’s 70th birthday, they didn’t really intend to make their major announcement on quite this evening. But their children know something’s not quite right and the announcement that their parents are to divorce comes as a bombshell out of the blue to them.
So they react exactly the way I think any modern family would react. They think it’s all about them.
Helga Flatland’s book is not about why this marriage hasn’t worked. Rather it is a quiet, forensic examination of how this one major decision impacts upon the grown children of the marriage. The centre has not held and things are falling apart for Liv, Ellen and Håkon .
We read about the dynamics between these siblings. Liv, the elder, always the most controlling; sees herself as he one who holds the sibling relationship together. Resentful of her younger sister of whom she was always jealous due to Ellen curvaceousness, she is constantly comparing her life to Ellen’s. Håkon is the youngest and the only male; always the baby of the family. Håkon was born with a hole in his heart and his sisters clearly believe that he received extra attention as a result. Neither sister credits Håkon with much adult intelligence, though he is the one who initially handles his parents news best. And Ellen, the one in the middle who believes she is struggling because she is the middle child. Though she has overcome dyslexia to carve out a very successful career as a media trainer and coach, she still suffers from a strong inferiority complex.
A Modern Family follows Liv and Ellen for most of the book, with Håkon ’s chapters coming in towards the end.
It’s quite hard to describe quite why this book resonates so strongly, but I think it is because this could be a book about any of us. There is so much here to identify with in terms of sibling relationships, jealousies and rivalries, and yet still the strong bonds that tie each to the other in times of adversity. Flatland uses the divorce as a catalyst to examine the ways in which the grown up children react to their normality being so obviously challenged.
It is easy to identify with Liv. She is the one who is most like her mother. The one who wants her relationship with her children to be just like the one her mother had with her and yet her mother still criticises her parenting. Mildly, but it is there just the same. As the book progresses, Liv suffers her own crisis of conscience as everything she has trusted about marriage is seemingly torn apart and she no longer has a centre to hold on to. She wants this divorce to be about taking sides, and it isn’t – that just doesn’t work for her and she has a hard time as a result.
Ellen is on her own constant quest for validation. Her relationship with Simen is strained by her desperate and increasingly hopeless need for that validation in concrete form. Ellen knows that Liv patronises her, even though she’s only two years younger and yet she lets Liv away with it, because that’s the way it has always been.
Håkon sees himself as a rebel to conformity, eschewing normative relationship standards. He is the one who tries hard to shrug off his parents decision as completely understandable. After all, living in a monogamous relationship with just one person for over 30 years just isn’t natural. But for all his sangfroid, it is Håkon who is most discomfited when his parents sell their house and his own relationship with Anna is causing him to challenge everything he believed until now.
The way each sibling views things so differently from the other rings very true. Each sees things from their own viewpoint, how it impacts upon them and discards the things that don’t fit with their own perception. Thus we have not so much unreliable narrators as selfish ones who never stop to consider what their other siblings are going through, or indeed what is happening to their parents. Their own perception is paramount and what doesn’t fit never happened.
As a portrait of a family this was the aspect that really resonated with me and I’ll be thinking about that in relation to my own family for a long time.
Helga Flatland’s book is beautifully written, with a flawless translation from Rosie Hedger, and it touches so many nerves about family life that it sometimes felt that this was my life. Flatland’s gift is to take three dimensional, very real characters and put them on the page in a recognisable situation and then to show their inner workings as if she were dissecting their thought processes.
A masterpiece of micro -portraiture, A Modern Family is both moving and profound.
Verdict: Fabulous, precise prose coupled with brilliantly drawn characters in an utterly mesmerising situation. The tension of family dynamics shines through here and will strike a chord with everyone who reads it. A Modern Family is moving and profound.
Helga Flatland is a Norwegian novelist and children’s writer. She was born in Notodden and grew up in Flatdal. She made her literary debut in 2010 with the novel Bli hvis du kan. Reis hvis du må, for which she was awarded the Tarjei Vesaas’ debutantpris . The novel was the first in a trilogy, and was followed by Alle vil hjem. Ingen vil tilbake (2012) and Det finnes ingen helhet (2013). In 2015 she published the novel Vingebelastning, as well as the children’s book Eline får besøk. In 2015 Flatland was awarded the Amalie Skram Prize and Mads Wiel Nygaard’s Endowment.