No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Monday, December 31, 2007

#80: Stella Descending -- Linn Ullmann

From the moment she was born (her mother standing; Stella's first cry an earsplitting wail that struck one of the nurses deaf) Stella's been falling: throughout this novel, which opens with her fall from the roof of an apartment building she doesn't live in, she's falling and falling for ever.

Stella's story is told in -- or rather can be pieced together from -- narratives by her daughter Amanda; her curmudgeonly friend Axel, ninety if he's a day; by Corinne, the detective investigating Stella's death, who claims to be five hundred years old and to be able to smell a murderer; by the three old ladies who witness her fall; by Stella herself, in the form of the video that Martin shot just before she died, which was to have been a catalogue (for insurance purposes) of everything of value in their house.

Martin, her partner (who came into Stella's life by delivering an avocado-green sofa and then refusing to leave; who may or may not have pushed her from the roof), does not have a voice, except when he talks to Corinne.

This is an odd, impressionist book, made up of repetition and angle: the same event seen by different eyes, the same things seen in different places. Stella falling; Amanda constantly playing a Nintendo game in which she falls from world to world; a game in which there's a beast in the forest that eats children's hearts, which may or may not be the same beast that Martin's taking Bea to see in the forest. There's a face in the shawl that they hang over the window to keep out the light of the early northern morning, when neither Stella nor Martin can sleep. They play games; they challenge one another. Stella falls ill, and loses her sense of smell. (This happened to my mother.) Stella's mother wants to become a tree, and only on her deathbed does her stomach rumble, her body betray her with simple human noises. It's a novel full of silence, and falling, and absence. It's a series of impressions, a state of mind that Ullmann brings about: not necessarily a plot, but a situation and a series of events. Stella Descending is a novel where one comes away knowing more about the characters than they've really said.

The prose is lovely and the translation transparent. I suspect this is a book that will blossom with rereading.

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