Source: Review copy
Publication: P/B June 24th from Orenda books. Out now in ebook
My thanks to Orenda Books for an early copy for review
Anne’s life is rushing to an unexpected and untimely end. But her diagnosis of terminal cancer isn’t just a shock for her – and for her daughter, Sigrid, and granddaughter Mia – it shines a spotlight onto their fractured and uncomfortable relationships. On a spur-of-the moment trip to France, the three generations of women reveal harboured secrets, long-held frustrations and suppressed desires, and learn humbling and heart-warming lessons about how life should be lived when death is so close.
There are several good reasons for comparing Helga Flatland to Anne Tyler. Like Tyler, Flatland writes about the the everyday lives of the middle class – in her case middle-class Norwegians, gently and forensically examining the detail of their interactions and showing us what lies beneath them; how relationships are conducted. Flatland has that same gently melancholy that permeates her portrayals of family relationships and just as she exposes the fault lines, she also knows how to bring them round to a redemptive conclusion.
Flatland is a beautiful, tender writer who nevertheless uses her pen like a scalpel to peel back the conversations between Anne, the dying mother and grandmother, Sigrid the daughter and mother and Mia, the daughter and granddaughter and show us with delicacy what’s happening beneath the surface.
In One Last Time, so beautifully translated by Rosie Hedger that it never occurred to me once that I was reading a translation, Flatland’s subject matter is grief.
Anne has been diagnosed with cancer and it rapidly becomes clear that this is a terminal diagnosis. For Anne, it is something she has to come to terms with and she needs to put her affairs in order. Her first thoughts are for Gustav, her husband, now in care, who most of the time does not know her, but who gets very agitated if she doesn’t visit. Gustav had a series of strokes in his mid-life and this meant that Anne was his carer for quite some time at home. That, in turn, has impacted on Sigrid and her relationship with her mother.
Sigrid has a daughter Mia, with Jens, a man whose wanderlust was stronger than his devotion and Sigrid now lives with a new partner and has a young son with him. Mia is a typical truculent teenager, now spending time with Jens which Sigrid worries will hurt her partner; the man who brought her up as his own.
Anne’s diagnosis now forces all these things into relief and we hear the perspectives of Anne and Sigrid telling their stories throughout the book.
There will not be many families whose lives have been untouched by cancer, or any serious illness and this book will resonate, for Flatland’s themes are universal.
As the family come to consider how this diagnosis will impact on their lives and begin to take decisions, often ignoring Anne in their deliberations even although it is all about her, Sigrid and Anne are going to have to find a way of re-opening the lines of communication that have perished through neglect over many years.
More, it is a book about finding a way to reconcile opposing perspectives and reach an understanding based on finding a new respect, one borne out of love.
Flatland’s book is never sentimental or mawkish. Yet is it emotive in the best way, letting the women show their flaws and vulnerabilities that they have worked to keep hidden for years; identifying where the fault lines in relationships have come from and gently setting about finding a way to close the gap.
Verdict: This is a story so beautifully told that readers will identify with its themes and find something in it that corresponds to their own circumstances. This is a book about grief and about facing up to the challenges of life and relationships. One Last Time is a book about communication when words have never been enough. It is tender, beautiful and ultimately, hopeful.
Helga Flatland is already one of Norway’s most awarded and widely read authors. Born in Telemark, Norway, in 1984, she made her literary debut in 2010 with the novel Stay If You Can, Leave If You Must, for which she was awarded the Tarjei Vesaas’ First Book Prize. She has written four novels and a children’s book and has won several other literary awards. Her fifth novel, A Modern Family (her first English translation), was published to wide acclaim in Norway in August 2017, and was a number-one bestseller. The rights have subsequently been sold across Europe and the novel has sold more than 100,000 copies. One Last Time was published in Norway in 2020, where it topped the bestseller lists, and was shortlisted for the Norwegian Booksellers Award