Reviewed by Sarah Death in SBR 2013:1
Review Section: Fiction
This is a haunting story in which events are viewed in stream-of-consciousness style through the eyes of a boy who accompanies his mother on a sunshine package holiday and then has to come to terms with her death when their hired jeep breaks down and they are trapped in a sandstorm. In its short format, its juxtaposition of seaside idyll and bleak loss, and its family constellation it is reminiscent of Véronique Olmi’s haunting novella Beside the Sea.
The boy at the centre of the narrative has been given a camera for the trip and gets absorbed in taking pictures, not conventional holiday snaps but strangelyangled shots of his mother, fellow guests, and the locality and hotel. The play of light and shade, zoom shots and other experiments lead him to reflect on the difference between the real world and the one captured by his lens. His thoughts flit randomly, as thoughts do, betraying no overt emotion for his mother, but it is clear from a scene on the beach, when he temporarily loses track of her as she swims out to sea, that she is his whole universe.
Even so, he is truculent, suffers from the heat and unaccustomed diet and is unimpressed by his mother’s sightseeing and socialising. He clings to his camera, which he wears as a kind of talisman throughout the book, soothed by the feel of it against his chest.
But later, when he is living with his father, the camera proves incapable of helping him through the inevitable period of intense bereavement. He carries the device with him, yet cannot use it, and finds little comfort in looking back at his holiday pictures because he already knows they did not capture the essence of his mother. As so often, the child’s grief is expressed in tangential ways: rage and fights at school, truancy, deliberately isolating himself, falling prey to wild fears. In a quest for something for which he has no name, he climbs up onto the roof of the apartment block to survey the sky and birds.
The narrative is located entirely in the boy’s head, giving only a vague sense of settings and fleeting glimpses of other people; moods, sensory perceptions and emotional responses dominate. It has the feel of a modernist text, in fact this book’s style and its themes of photography and loss strikingly echo Henry Parland’s modernist classic Sönder (To Pieces) written in 1930.
Some of the more complex concepts and the unusual, luminous language seem more at home in the mind of the adult author than the young boy, but this jars only minimally as the reader is carried along by the vivid and beautiful prose. Near the beginning of the book, Norin writes, for example, of the boy feeling tired, with ‘that heavy, salty fatigue that was almost free-standing inside him, as if he had been plucked out of everything’. Much later, when his grief has driven him up to the roof and then back inside to take refuge in the drying loft, he dozes off and awakes at dawn: ‘There is light, glasswhite, pear-white against the windows’.
Marie Norin has published four collections of poetry. white white is her third prose work and met with a positive critical reception in Sweden.