Natur och Kultur, 2014.
Reviewed by B.J. Epstein in SBR 2015:1
Review Section: Fiction
What do you do when your life is in ruins? What do you do when the world around you is in ruins? These questions seem to be the premise for Lotta Lundberg’s new novel Timme noll (Zero Hour), which features three tangentially related stories from three different periods.
The first story is about Hedwig, a Catholic convert novelist in Berlin at the end of World War II, a time when her city has been devastated and the life she knew is over. She has a half-Jewish daughter born out of wedlock, and although she professes to feel motherly love, her real passion is for her writing. Apparently unable or unwilling to take care of her daughter, and naïve about the Nazis and their goals (though to what extent is unclear), Hedwig sends her daughter – known only as The Girl – away during the war. The Girl never returns. Hedwig refuses to take any responsibility; she notes, ‘What good would it do to stand up and point out those who had looked away? What purpose would it serve? If you were tired of the war, you had to stop fighting. Put the lid on it. Forget it and build a new Germany.’ The second tale here is about Isa, whose mother moves to Africa, leaving her with her father in Uppsala. Isa’s segments are told in part in conversation with her therapist during the mid-1980s. She has a fascination, or perhaps an obsession, with the person she calls the Voice on the Radio, a journalist apparently inspired by Cordelia Edvardson. The Jerusalem correspondent for Svenska Dagbladet newspaper, Edvardson was an Auschwitz survivor whose mother had been a Catholic convert and whose father was Jewish. Unlike Hedwig’s daughter, Edvardson lived to tell her story. While all the language in Timme noll is poetic, Isa’s is particularly striking in its originality. ‘There are so many words that are freezing… I think I have to give them clothes,’ she says.
The most recent sections in the novel are about Ingrid, a retired therapist who has moved with her husband to an island in the Stockholm archipelago. A priest with Parkinson’s, her husband begins a relationship with a novelist, even while apparently expecting Ingrid to continue to take care of their home and all his needs. Ingrid is at times hard to understand; although she was a successful and independent career woman at one time, she seems bowed down by the demands made by her husband and children. While she does eventually make a change in her life, by the end she nonetheless feels a kinship with her former patients, and she says, ‘I’m breaking.’
The book’s blurb suggests that Lundberg’s work is similar to Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, and that is a good comparison, especially if one adds a soupçon of Virginia Woolf to the mix. The big themes here include writing and mental and emotional illness. Writing is compared to archaeology – a ‘naked, dusty, dirty’ shard from a Greek vase ‘is the only thing that says something about us – for us – about that which we don’t remember’. Lundberg asks whether it is selfish to write and to prioritise one’s creative talents, and also whether one person can ever understand another, through writing or through conversation.
It’s intriguing that the novel concludes without pat, clear, happy endings. Instead, the three tales finish in ways that seem true to them and to the characters in them; this makes the book feel more realistic. But it is also suffused with sorrow, and offers the reader no easy answers.