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From Barnes & NobleAll in the Family
In Before You Sleep, Linn Ullmann chronicles the lives of a Norwegian family, ranging through three generations, from 1930s Brooklyn to present-day Oslo. It is a narrative of alarming flexibility and relentless energy, where every word is a kind of high-wire act.
The novel begins at the wedding of Julie, the older daughter, and "the impeccable Aleksander." The bride's family is rife with idiosyncrasies and savored grudges; rarely do so many characters become interesting so quickly. Her mother, Anni, was once irresistible, and could make any man love her by her smile alone. Her father, divorced from Anni, advises his daughters to "Never admit being unfaithful.... That's when you have to lie as if your life depends on it, and then most likely it does."
Karin, the younger daughter, is especially concerned with questions of fidelity. She is our guide through this narrative, which, as it forks and digresses -- from the wedding to memories to hypothetical fantasies and back -- is almost confusing, yet follows its own logic, its movement convincingly like that of a human mind. Karin's energy infuses her descriptions and memories, and she connects them with controlled abandon. Furthermore, she is not only capable of shaping this flux of information but of simultaneously concerning herself with the seduction of a married wedding guest.
The novel's sinuous movement is a vivid demonstration of Karin's seductive power. The story, ultimately her own, is framed by the unfolding drama of her family -- especially the marriage of Julie and Aleksander, and the deterioration of their relationship in the following years. While Karin cannot know all the details of her sister's faltering marriage, she gathers what information she can, guessing at and re-creating the rest. Here, the writing is strong, the metaphors startling, the emotions visceral. Karin richly imagines Aleksander's point of view and carefully shows Julie's relationship with their young son, Sander ("I promise to protect you," Julie says. "I can't protect you."). She is most sensitive in her portrayal of the dynamics between herself, Julie, and Anni; she is aware that their choices serve as lessons to her.
Early on, however, Karin makes this confession: "Since I had now learned the difference between a lie that paid and a lie that didn't, I decided to lie as much as possible for the rest of my life. And that's how it turned out." As readers, what are we to make of such a narrator? Do we mistrust her, or appreciate her frankness? Perhaps part of the answer is found in a piece of her grandmother's advice: "Never look back, just cross it out and keep going." Her lying seems to be a defense mechanism, an adjustment of the past that makes the present more bearable, the future a reason to hope.
When Karin recounts scenes that don't directly involve her, her lying is subtler and less obtrusive; it serves as an attempt to recollect her family's history, and to explain its current state. For instance, when she tells of her maternal grandfather (a tailor whose costumes, aptly, "changed people's identity"), who emigrated to Brooklyn in the 1930s, her storytelling even takes into account the disagreements between her many sources. The reader's anxiety about winnowing truth from lie eases in these sections, yet the narrative does lose a little of its energy and unpredictability.
The novel's present action soon provides enough drama in need of readjustment. Julie and Aleksander drift further apart, Anni grows older and less attractive, and Karin herself suffers various romantic setbacks. Sometimes, Karin's lies seem to be attempts to entertain and distract (for example, a boyfriend is suddenly transformed into a mackerel and is not heard of again); other times, it's not clear if she can tell she's lying at all. After Anni seems to have had a face-lift, Karin reacts violently: "She has three noses and a bow in her hair. And then my eyes begin to sting." Her sister, Julie, stands next to her and notices no such thing. Soon, Karin is avoiding her mother's "liquid face"; she wears sunglasses and a shawl when they must meet, and, at one point, almost strikes her.
One fascinating narrative effect is that the reader's confusion between reality and fantasy often seems to run parallel with Karin's own. It becomes increasingly difficult, however, to distinguish between lies where Karin is trying to entertain us (while covering up a past discomfort) and those she can't help telling, that she actually believes. The narrative's inability to make this distinction suggests, perhaps, that she is precariously balanced between the two.
The easier conclusion -- narratively, and for Karin's character -- would be a further descent into delusion; fortunately, as the novel draws to a close, she seems to realize her unsteadiness. When she imagines a dead aunt speaking to her, it is clear that the advice comes from within: "...sometimes you exaggerate a little too much for your own good. One day something might happen in your life that's a lot more serious than what's come before. One day life will demand that you take responsibility." Karin's inner life reaches this turning point at the same time that her outer life -- the drama of her family -- demands to be accepted on its own terms. This combination of jarring circumstance and growing self-awareness transforms Before You Sleep from merely a bravura piece of writing into a satisfying and disturbing novel.