The River (novel)
"This is a book of exceptional literary power.”

The River (novel)

Reviewed by Unni Lindell for Bokklubben Nye Bøker

Young Aksel Vinding enters into pacts with two strong women: Selma, a fifty-year-old piano teacher, and Marianne, the mother of his dead girlfriend.

We find ourselves at the beginning of the 1970s, in the midst of the abortion debate, women’s liberation, the EC and the Vietnam War. But Aksel is not concerned with current events. He has enough trouble dealing with his own problems: the powerful emotions that women and music awaken in him. Aksel Vinding wants to be a musician. But the lonely piano student is above all a man of flesh and blood, which is not always easy to cope with. He is surrounded by strong women.

Aksel is living in a minefield of feelings. He is obsessed with the dead Anja, the anorexic girlfriend he has lost. He is confused, vulnerable, driven by instinctual urges, and is afraid of not living up to the expectation of his fifty-year-old piano teacher, Selma Lynge, that he will become a renowned pianist.

                                                  In her childhood bedroom

Aksel visits Anja’s mother, the socialistically-inclined doctor Marianne Skoog. She rents Anja’s room to him cheaply. What’s more, the family’s superb grand piano is at his disposal. In Marianne’s house he can be with Anja, lie in her bed, gaze at her walls, dream the dreams that she didn’t have a chance to dream, play on the piano keys that she loved. Aksel’s devotion to someone who is dead is heartbreaking. But his problems become no less complex when he discovers that his attraction has been transferred from daughter to mother.

The content of the story is based on powerful urges, vulnerability and music. Bach, Chopin and Czerny are all present, as are Mahler and Mozart. But Joni Mitchell and Woodstock are also there. Marianne, a liberated woman, opens up a new world to Aksel – a world of modern music and adult sexuality.

Diametrically opposed to Marianne is the ambitious, classically trained piano teacher Selma Lynge. Almost as though this were a crime novel, we are drawn into Aksel Vinding’s predicament, torn as he is between Marianne Skoog and Selma Lynge. Selma exerts an intense, nearly psychopathic pressure on Aksel. She is fierce, strikes him, holds him in a vice-like grip, and Aksel knows that only she can open the doors of music for him. His future becomes her project – she says that he will be her last student, so she must succeed with him.

“The River” is constructed as dramatically as a Wagner opera, with a compelling story that gathers momentum as it progresses. The music itself functions as a space between the events of Aksel’s life as he is driven from pillar to post by strong and perhaps dangerous women, and as the intensely focused world of classical music is disrupted by rock and Woodstock.

                                                  Powerful urges

Ketil Bjørnstad has created a masterful work, carving out an obsessive tale, a real page turner, about the relationship between aversion, powerful urges and extreme vulnerability. This is what brings Aksel Vinding alive. He deals with his reactions quietly. Throughout the entire story the music is present, like a backdrop, like an electric current that lights up the words. This is a book of exceptional literary power. It draws the reader in; it is tough and serious, gently searching and sophisticated. And the ending is quite brutal.

It is wonderful to read a really good book – a book that is first-rate literature and a thrilling story at the same time. I cannot help comparing “The River” to the critically acclaimed “Christmas Oratorio” by Gøran Tunstrøm. And that happens to be my favourite book..