Stella Descending

Stella Descending

by Linn Ullmann

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Stella descends, over and over, in the course of this haunting novel. She falls from the womb, since her mother gives birth standing up; she falls for Martin, who delivers her new green sofa and refuses to leave; she falls ill and eventually recovers; but her biggest fall, the descent that suffuses her story, is a plunge to her death off a nine-story building.

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Stella descends, over and over, in the course of this haunting novel. She falls from the womb, since her mother gives birth standing up; she falls for Martin, who delivers her new green sofa and refuses to leave; she falls ill and eventually recovers; but her biggest fall, the descent that suffuses her story, is a plunge to her death off a nine-story building. Memories and observations related by Stella’s adolescent daughter, her curmudgeonly octogenarian friend, three old ladies who witness her final moments, and finally Stella herself combine in cryptic and beguiling ways to unravel the mystery: Playing a lover’s game on that rooftop, did she fall out of her husband’s arms, or was she pushed?

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Exquisitely written. . . . As hallucinatory as August heat.” –The Washington Post

[Ullman]’s gift is for weaving the banal details of love, career and family with the mystic world of dreams and ghosts into one seamless fabric . . . The hypnotic allure of the story adds to the reader’s eagerness to return to Stella and share the enigma of her final flight.” –The New York Times Book Review

“Weird and wonderful . . .Ullmann has effortlessly established a distinct literary voice.” –Elle

Magical in its imagery . . . Extraordinary.” –The Boston Globe

“Surrealistic . . . in the original 1920s sense: as a work of art that blurs the borders between mundane reality and the reality of fantasies and dreams. . . Where Ullmann differs is in her humor . . . her snappy prose and cheeky attitude.” –Los Angeles Times Book Review

“Exquisite. . . . The atmosphere and taut pacing make this an icily swift read, one whose chill lingers longer than a Scandinavian winter.” –Entertainment Weekly

“Ullmann has a knack for uncovering rich, off-beat details that lend this disturbing story a breath of black humor.” –The Miami Herald

“Quirky . . . compelling. . . . the lyrical introspections of Ullmann’s characters make us feel that our failures don’t really matter; what counts is that we keep on trying.” –St. Petersburg Times

“Haunting, elegiac . . . deft and light enough to work, creating just the right atmosphere of foreboding and regret.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Wonderfully strange . . . . Ullmann pairs her native Scandinavian starkness with playful prose . . . to peculiar, pleasing effect. . . . Once one enters Ullmann’s hypnotic world, the reward is an emotionally rich and layered story about the elusiveness of truth.” —Publishers Weekly

The New York Times
In her second novel, adroitly translated from the Norwegian by Barbara Haveland, Linn Ullmann uses multiple narrators and alternates between past and present to unravel the secret of her heroine's fatal plunge. Stella Descending, however, is too Scandinavian to settle for being a straightforward mystery. Neither grimly fatalistic nor wistful, it explores the strange and secret thoughts of survivors, witnesses and the dead woman herself, tumbling and floating luxuriantly in the space between the ''fall into the world'' of birth and the plunge into the unknown of death. — Mary Elizabeth Williams
The Washington Post
Exquisitely written, Stella Descending is really about keeping loneliness -- and love -- at bay, a troubling examination of the ways that love can be as much of a balancing act as being poised on the edge of a rooftop, desperately hoping to avoid the inescapable fall. — Caroline Leavitt
Publishers Weekly
One part unsolvable mystery, one part modern fairy tale, Ullmann's second novel is a wonderfully strange follow-up to 1998's well-received Before You Sleep. In the early morning hours of August 2000 in Oslo, the "more beautiful than beautiful" Stella and her enigmatic husband, Martin, embrace on the roof just before she loses her precarious footing and falls to her death. The three eyewitnesses-each with a curious connection to Stella-and Corinne, the investigating officer, who has the ability to smell guilt, aim to decipher the nature of the embrace: was it Martin's failed effort to save his wife, or a successful attempt to push her? Among Stella's mourners are her two daughters, 15-year-old Amanda (who refers to Martin, her stepfather, as a "wicked sorcerer") and young Bee, whose birth inexplicably disturbed her father, Martin: "Sometimes I would get it into my head that the baby was evil." The mysteries are myriad: how did Martin and Stella feel about each other? What were their true intentions? Does Martin's penchant for bringing out the worst in people ("Other people's contempt is so easily aroused") preclude him from loving his wife? As the only character who doesn't take a turn narrating the story-even Stella chimes in from beyond the grave-he forfeits his chance to defend himself. Ullmann pairs her native Scandinavian starkness with playful prose-often sexually graphic-to peculiar, pleasing effect. The oddness may be off-putting at first, but once one enters Ullmann's hypnotic world, the reward is an emotionally rich and layered story about the elusiveness of truth. (Aug. 18) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Stella descends, all right. At the beginning of Ullmann's novel, she falls nine stories from her rooftop to her death while doing a dangerous dance with her husband, Martin. Or was it a dance? The key players in Stella's life spend the rest of the story weighing in on the details of her complicated world and their roles in it. There is furious, 15-year-old daughter Amanda, who uses her prickly sexuality to escape her mother's grim marriage. Shockingly bitter, sick, old Axel falls under Stella's spell at the hospital, where she is his nurse. Martin's exceedingly creepy place in Stella's heart is told strictly from the viewpoint of others. It is the unnerving silence of their daughter Bee that finally causes the crack in the thin veneer of their marriage to morph into an abyss. Even Stella checks in from beyond, as she slowly peels back the secrets and the disappointments that led her to the roof. Ullmann, author of the European best seller Before You Sleep, tells a chilly tale of children who grow up too fast and of adults who don't grow up at all. This work will appeal to those who don't mind the absence of a single sympathetic character. For larger libraries.-Beth E. Andersen, Ann Arbor Dist. Lib., MI Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A haunting, elegiac account of a woman's mysterious death, told by this Norwegian second-novelist (Before You Sleep, 1999) through the voices of the detective and survivors trying to make sense of the case. There is Twin Peaks-like weirdness to this story, which is much too elliptical to qualify as a typical whodunit. We begin with the death of Stella, an Oslo nurse who falls from the roof of her seven-storey apartment building. Her husband Martin was not only on the roof, too, but seen holding onto her just before she fell-or was he pushing her? The witnesses can't quite make up their minds. Corinne, the detective investigating the case, is a former ventriloquist whose stomach turns (literally) whenever she is in the presence of a killer. She has a bad feeling about Martin, but there's not enough evidence to charge him with anything. Corinne also happens to know that in 1934 a lovelorn actor killed himself by jumping off the very same roof. Axel, an old man whom Stella had nursed in the hospital and who subsequently became her friend, had a bad feeling about Martin, too. Martin is a furniture salesman who sold Stella a green sofa and refused to leave after he delivered it-he and Stella had been married for ten years when she died. It seems that Martin had a kind of private game in which he took it upon himself to sleep with every woman who ever bought a green sofa from him. Stella had some quirks, too: She let a plumber move in with her when she couldn't afford to pay him (he even stayed after she and Martin were married). So, were she and Martin up to something weird on the roof, or was the death just an accident? Or a murder? Suicide? A very strange tale that could have been unbearablypretentious-but it's deft and light enough to work, creating just the right atmosphere of foreboding and regret.

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Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Product dimensions:
5.15(w) x 7.98(h) x 0.51(d)

Read an Excerpt


Alma Blom

I have two large ears.

I have two large ears shaped like Italian portals, but I don't use them anymore. First I went deaf in one ear, then I went deaf in the other. Worse things have happened.

I put my knitting in my bag and tilted my head back, looking up. They were like two dolls up there on the roof, he with his Bible-black locks, she in a yellow-and-red dress. Back and forth along the edge. Swaying back and forth. I shouted at them to get down from there. There are plenty of ways to die without landing on other people's heads. As a pedestrian you ought to be insured against that sort of thing. Then they stopped and looked down. My, how that must have made their heads spin. And then they hugged. Although I don't know. Was it a hug? If you ask me, it looked more like a sort of tussle. She was pulling away and he was hanging on. Or maybe he was pulling away and she was hanging on. And then it happened: She lost her footing and fell. Or he pushed her, and she fell. It's hard to say just what happened. But she fell, that's for sure. And I felt my stomach sink. One time, I thought I saw a plane fall out of the sky. And I felt my stomach sink that time too. I squeezed my eyes tight shut and waited for the thud. For a moment there I forgot I was deaf.


The other night on the streetcar, I spotted a man I thought I knew. He was sitting very still, a few seats in front of me, gazing out the window. There wasn't much to see out there; the streets were deserted and it was dark and miserable, just the odd car swishing by. No one in the street, just flurries of snow chased by rain, and the wet white light of the streetlamps.

I saw him first from the back. He was wearing a brown leather jacket, his hair was thick and black—a handsome man, I thought, a man who walks tall and never stumbles. Just for a second I thought I saw a little girl dressed in red on the seat next to him, but then I gave my head a shake. What was I thinking? There was no child there. As if there would be, in such weather and at that time of night. There was no one on the streetcar but him and me—and the driver, of course. The man stood up and headed for the door at the front. We were approaching a stop.

"Martin Vold," I called out softly. "Is that you?"

The man turned around. His face was not familiar. I noticed two beady green eyes and a scar on his chin.

"You must be mistaken," he said, as the doors opened. "That's not me."

"No," I said, "that's not you. But good night, anyway, and watch your step out there. The pavement's slippery."

"Thanks, you too," said the man. "Good night."

It hasn't even been six months since the last time I had anything to do with him. That was at the beginning of September last year. The evening before Stella's funeral I called on him at home in Hamborgveien, up by the Lady Falls. We sat down at the large dark-brown dining table, and there we passed the night. He asked me to keep my voice down, so as not to wake the children. He did most of the talking. I asked questions. It's what I'm good at—asking questions—and it occurred to me while we were sitting there that it was as if we were making up a story together, he and I, and that as we went on, the story of what really happened was slipping through my fingers. In my job I'm used to that sort of thing—stories slipping through my fingers, I mean—but that doesn't make it any less disappointing. I watch, I listen, I intuit, I know. But I have no power over what happens. I cannot prevent tragedies.

Where to begin? The murder itself—if it was murder, that is—took place on August 27, 2000. But I will begin with the footnote, the historical background, if you like.

On February 23, 1934, a thirty-two-year-old man met his death when he fell from atop an apartment building on Frognerplass in Oslo. The man whose life ended in this way was a popular, good-looking, and gifted actor with a bright future in front of him. He was known for playing horses with the chairs in the Hotel Continental's Annen Etage, bouncing around the restaurant to the strains of the "Ryttermarsjen." Four days later, Johan Peter Bull, the National Theater's dramatist and secretary, noted in his diary that he feared there might be trouble at that evening's performance of When We Dead Awaken. There was talk of plans to disrupt the play with boos and catcalls, in protest against one of the National Theater's most beguiling actresses, who was currently winning great acclaim for her portrayal of Irene. Some felt this actress was partly to blame for her young colleague's death, inasmuch as the two had been having an affair. The police turned out in force, but the performance went off without incident.

In the audience that evening was a young man, a farmer's son named Elias Vold. This was Martin Vold's paternal grandfather. Elias hailed from Sweden, where his parents ran an ostrich farm in Sundbyberg, outside Stockholm, but when he was only fifteen the lad was forced to move from this farm to another one, in Hoylandet. This experience—of leaving his mother and father in Sweden to go live with his two uncles in Norway—was to leave its mark on him for the rest of his short life. His uncles, who were cattle and sheep farmers, took turns beating him every night, and he had to work hard for his bread. He missed his parents, but they could no longer support him; like their fellow ostrich farmers elsewhere in the world, they had been hit hard by the ostrich crash of 1918. The crash followed a global swing in fashion; ladies everywhere had lost the taste for hats trimmed with ostrich feathers. It was the first of three great tragedies to befall the Vold family. I would even go so far as to say that had fashions in millinery been more stable, none of these three tragic events would have occurred and I would not be sitting here today, in the winter of 2001, with an unexplained death on my hands.

The once-thriving ostrich farm in Sundbyberg was sold, taken over by two rival companies, Svensk Bio and Skandia, who joined forces on this one occasion to build Rasunda Filmstad, home of the legendary film studios. Here, the filmmakers Victor Sjostrom and Mauritz Stiller worked alongside such stars as Tora Teje, Lars Hanson, Anders de Wahl, Karin Molander, and Hilda Borgstrom. Greta Garbo turned in an impressive performance in Gosta Berling's Saga in 1924, "giving us hope for the future," to quote the ecstatic critic in Svenska Dagbladet. I can well imagine how Elias must have cursed the day his parents decided to put their money in ostriches rather than the movies.

Be that as it may. As soon as he came of age, Elias ran away from his two uncles and from his sweetheart, Harriet, who was known as the loveliest lass in all of Hoylandet. An ostrich feather was all he took with him when he boarded the bus that would carry him from Hoylandet to Skogmo station. He then caught the train to Trondheim and there another, going to Oslo.

And so it happened that Elias was in the audience that evening in February 1934 to see When We Dead Awaken with the beguiling actress in the part of Irene—undisturbed, fortunately, by catcalls or any other show of disapproval. Later that evening, Elias wrote Harriet a letter in which he told her about the play, the catcalling that had failed to transpire, the rumors of an unhappy love affair between the two Ibsen interpreters, and the young actor's fall from the top of the apartment building in Frogner. And one other thing: It would be some time before he returned to Hoylandet, he wrote. He could well understand if Harriet did not feel like waiting for him, but he wanted to try his luck on the stage, possibly even in movies—yes, movies for sure. Who knew what might lie in store for a young man like himself? He closed the letter with a few well-chosen lines from When We Dead Awaken, since it was precisely during that very performance at the National Theater, on February 27, 1934, that he—inspired, as it were, by Henrik Ibsen—had the idea of breaking it off with his sweetheart in H0ylandet and embarking on a new life as a star of stage and screen.

Elias had another passion, too—namely, for lying down on railway tracks, in particular on the line between Toyen and Grefsen. He would try to see how long he could lie there without being run over. Unfortunately, one day he lay there too long and was killed: sliced in half. Rasunda Filmstad was history. His body was sent back to Hoylandet: this time, again, by train, from Oslo to Trondheim, where another train carried it to Skogmo; there it was loaded aboard the bus to Hoylandet. It was a quiet funeral. His parents were dead, and his uncles couldn't have cared less. Only his sweetheart, Harriet, now eight months heavy, with tears streaming becomingly down her plump cheeks—only she was there to bid him a last farewell.

After the ceremony, Harriet remained on her knees at Elias's graveside, whispering into the pile of earth, her swollen belly clearly visible beneath her winter coat, her long fair braid hanging down her back. It was dusk. An icy winter wind tugged at the posy of flowers she had laid on the coffin. She made no move to get up, just stayed on her knees, her head almost in the grave itself, whispering, hands fluttering. No one had the heart to disturb her, although a few passersby did stop to stare from a distance. Naturally, everyone was wondering what she could possibly have to say now to this man who had let her down so badly in life.

Five weeks later, Harriet gave birth to a bouncing baby boy. For the record, I have to confess that Harriet's bouncing baby boy does not interest me in the slightest. I have tried to picture his face, his life, his passions, even, but to no avail. All I can say is that he was named Jesper, that he went on to honor his Swedish grandparents by resurrecting on a grand scale their dream of Scandinavian ostrich farming, and that years later he started up the first ostrich farm in Norway, at Hoylandet. There! That's Jesper's story! Oh, yes, one other thing: Back in the fifties, Jesper married Nora, and with her he had a son: Martin.

Winter 1990. Our story proper begins about now, on a day in late January, let us say. Here's picture number one: We are standing outside an apartment building in the Frogner district of Oslo, scene of the young actor's tragic death in 1934. In the picture you can see a hydraulic lift extending upward to a closed window on the ninth floor. Atop the lift is a platform, on the platform sits a spanking-new avocado-green sofa, and on the sofa sits Martin, with a big smile on his face. I don't know whether you have noticed, but behind the closed window on the ninth floor, half hidden behind a pale-blue curtain, a young woman is waiting.

The name of the woman behind the blue curtain on the ninth floor is Stella. On a sunlit evening just over ten years after Martin climbs through her window, she will fall from that selfsame building in Frogner. The descent, from the moment she loses her footing until she hits the ground, will take two seconds. Two seconds: no more, no less. It is these two seconds on which I shall endeavor here to shed some light.

I am a special investigator with the Violent Crimes division of the Oslo police department. The sign on my office door says C. DANIELSEN. The C is for Corinne. I have no friends; my coworkers call me Corrie the Chorus because of my theatrical background. In my former life I was a ventriloquist and puppet maker. At one time I even had my own puppet theater. My piece de resistance was a number featuring fifty puppets, a very fair representation of the entire cast of La Boheme.

My real gift, however, is that I get an ever so slight twinge in my stomach whenever I come face-to-face with a killer. Call it intuition. I can also tell when I'm on the brink of a confession and when I am not. This is one of those cases in which I never did get a confession. The case was dropped due to lack of evidence. Martin took his red-clad daughter, Bee, by the hand and walked away, vanishing from my sight until that winter's night in Oslo, when he turned up again on that streetcar—or so I thought. He got off scot-free.

Hence these words.


Listen! Sometimes at night, when I'm in bed, Mamma is here with me. Okay, not right here but close by. And sometimes she talks, not to me and not to Bee, but to someone else: Martin, maybe, or the old geezer. She doesn't know I can hear her. Martin doesn't want to hear, and the old geezer is deaf, so I suppose you could say she's talking to nobody.

A few years ago, Mamma got sick and kept saying to herself, Better not fall now, better not fall. She used to say the same thing to me: Better not fall now. And to Bee: Better not fall now. I didn't know what she meant. She was lying in bed flat on her back, and Bee and I were standing with our feet flat on the floor, and there she was saying we better not fall. You can't fall when you're already lying in bed, I told her. She said it was just a figure of speech. She didn't mean it literally. But then some years went by and she fell anyway. Literally. And that was that. I don't think people should go around using figures of speech all over the place if they don't mean them literally. I must remember to tell Mamma that next time she's close by.

That time when she was sick we thought she was going to die, but she didn't. She got better and went back to work and said things I didn't like: that she was living on borrowed time. When she was in the hospital, she asked me to read to her. Books and newspapers. She asked me to read Moby-Dick, because she felt you couldn't die without having read Moby-Dick. We never managed to finish it. She couldn't take it after a while. There came a point where all she wanted me to read were the real estate ads in Aftenposten. "Bright three-room apartment in quiet street, with balcony," that sort of thing. That cheered her up. You'll have to go and look at that one, she'd say, so I would, and afterward I would tell her all about the three rooms and the balcony, and about the light.

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