When you lose someone, you try to hold onto them. You might wear their old clothes (and they might be rather too big). You might read things they’ve written (even if it’s just underlining or marginal notes in books they’ve read). You might be lucky, and have recordings of them. But you might not be ready to get those tapes out for a long time.
Linn Ullmann did all those things when she lost her father. The fact that her father was Ingmar Bergman is secondary – this book is a beautiful and bitingly real story of a loved one remembered. She carried those tapes round in her handbag for years before she could even listen to them. When she finally played back the interviews she did with her father soon before he died, they triggered memories that wove into Unquiet, published in Norwegian in 2015, 8 years after his death, and translated into English by Thilo Reinhard last year. I read it when it came out in paperback in 2020 – 24 years after my father died.
When you lose someone, you look for others who have experienced the same loss. I’d always compared it to joining a secret society or club. Linn Ullmann compares it to being pregnant with her first child – she read everything she could get her hands on about pregnancy and childbirth. When her father died, she read everything she could get her hands on about that: “I couldn’t get enough of books about loss and different forms of mourning.” And now, you can read what she wrote.
So this book is about more than Ingmar – it’s about the relationship between father and daughter, a man and his women, and his children by them, the wider family; and it’s also about a mother and daughter. Linn’s mother, Liv Ullmann, who appears more later on in the book. But she’s usually not there enough. One of the best things about this book is that it doesn’t touch up the memories. It puts the flaws in, the funny moments, even if the humour is dark. Linn describes her parents’ first Christmas together, when she was a baby:
For me it helped that I didn’t have a very clear idea about what either of Linn Ullmann’s parents were like before I read her story. I discovered them as the memories unfolded. The three of them were always apart, in twos rather than as a trio. The book starts to reconnect them in a way that seems prescient for our times, for losses and separations of all kinds:
I’m glad I bought this book on paper, not electronically. It’s the sort of book you lend to people, and it might sit on their shelves for a rather long time, but when the time is right, they will read it. And it will help.
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