Published in The Observer September 22, 2019
When published in Vigdis Hjorth’s native Norway in 2016, Will and Testament became both a bestseller and a literary scandal.
The story is narrated by Bergljot, who was sexually abused by her father as a child. Having been long estranged from her parents, and her sisters who sided with them, Bergljot is drawn back into a family argument over inheritance, and specifically who gets a pair of holiday cabins.
The real-life media furore stemmed from the fact that Hjorth drew on her own family history, even prompting a rebuttal – in the form of another novel – by her sister Helga Hjorth. But Vigdis Hjorth has also insisted Will and Testament is fiction, and indeed it bears the subtitle “A Novel” on the cover.
It certainly has the bite of authenticity. The pain feels both festering and fresh: reading it is like watching someone peel back layers of not-quite-healed skin to probe a wound.
Hjorth skips around, so the saga of the cabins is interspersed with Bergljot’s memories, one such being the moment when, as a grown woman, she remembers what her father did to her. There’s a lot of psychoanalysis, buckets of Freud. Bergljot examines the abuse in the light of her parents’ dysfunctional relationship – her father’s obsessive desire for control; her mother forced to see Bergljot as a sexual rival in ways that leave you queasy: “Mum was … a vulnerable, shapely woman for as long as that lasted, it doesn’t last, it fades and younger, more attractive women appear; she can even give birth to them herself.”Advertisement
But there is also much that feels grubbily quotidian. Bergljot’s emails, letters and conversations with her family are planned and justified over multiple phone calls to friends; replies are pored over and disputed. Hjorth uses repetition, line by line and scene by scene, in a way that feels truthful of someone trying to process trauma. But it’s also stultifying – especially given her fondness for comma splices, racking up seven, 10, 13 clauses. It’s a stylistic choice some may love; I found it exhausting.
What Hjorth does powerfully convey is how not being believed can be as damaging for victims as the original trauma. Will and Testament is a reminder that it’s easier to hide darkness than face it. Some of the best bits widen this out to a societal level: Hjorth argues cogently that conflicts and atrocities often stem from what a nation represses or denies.
Still, it’s understandable why the book caused outrage, given the gravity of what it implies. There’s something uncomfortable about so vehemently insisting on the need to face the truth – and then insisting on your work’s status as fiction.
• Will and Testament by Vigdis Hjorth (translated by Charlotte Barslund) is published by Verso (£10.99).