Still ruminating: Unquiet by Linn Ullmann

I expected to find mandatory isolation difficult for many reasons. The one thing I did not anticipate was frogs. My hometown has experienced so much torrential rain in the last few months that my mum’s backyard has become a haven for those little green bastards. I’m sure they’re lurking during the day but their ribbits and croaking at 120 decibels starts right on sunset. You could say it has been very… Unquiet. That was an awful joke but the rest of this is pretty gloomy, so sit tight. 

This is a fictional story. It is also a memoir. I think it’s what they call autofiction. Whatever its name, I have never read anything like it. 

Linn Ullmann is the daughter of Ingmar Bergman, the renowned screenwriter and director, and Liv Ullmann, the great Norwegian actress, who played the lead in many of Bergman’s films and was his muse and lover for many years. They separated long before Ullmann could remember them ever being together but she visited her father at his home on the island of Fårö each Swedish summer through the month of July. It is a novel but it is also the story of Ullmann’s life as the daughter of these two exceptionally prominent, exceedingly influential people. 

From the first chapter, Ullmann is handing us an intensely intimate portrait of one family that is also many. She is one of nine children who share the same father, separated by five different mothers, multiple countries and substantial gaps in age. Her mother was young when she was born, her father was old, and although she was wanted neither parent was particularly parental. Her father especially, who remained on the island and in various countries that were not her own for her entire life, while Ullmann lived with her mother in Norway and, later, New York. There is no clear line between fiction and truth in this book (unless you are Ullmann herself) so I read it as a novel only in so far as she refers to herself as “the girl” – the rest I read as memory. 

So, the girl grows up, she continues to visit her father, and then the father dies (not a spoiler – it’s very much the whole point of the book). During the last stages of his life the father sits with the girl in front of a digital recorder and answers her questions. They intend to write a book together about growing old. After he passes she cannot listen to the recordings for many years. Until one day she does and this book comes to be. It is told in a series of fragmented vignettes as if Ullmann is reconstructing the way we remember our past and our disconnected conjuring of memory. She is not paying tribute to these parents but rather depicting without contempt the erratic upbringing of one child, the girl. For all I know the skeleton of this story is based on Ullmann’s history while the meat of it is entirely imaginative – that would make Ullmann all the more talented a writer for being able to so acutely describe certain pains of childhood and the jagged edges such pains can foster in adults.

There exists a great, enormous love of which only kids are capable, but what happens to a child when it is forced to share that love with one parent instead of two? The way Ullmann describes her first years as an only child with a single mum and a complex familial dynamic she is yet to comprehend will feel far too real to anyone who has also experienced it. On assessing the child/parent relationship retrospectively she writes, “To be honest, I think I have mourned my parents all my life. They changed before my eyes the way my children change before my eyes and I don’t really know who I was to them. Can I mourn people who are still alive?” She was a little girl and then a slightly older girl and then a woman, trying desperately to make sense of her life as someone who loved her parents so deeply while one was almost entirely absent and the other regularly disappeared. Unquiet is not only a dissection of that experience but also a commemoration of her father and, it seems, a final goodbye.

This was a heavy one for me. I should probably flag that it contains elements that feature in my own life and I read it while on my period in my second week of quarantine (what a lethal combination) so I’m willing to admit my judgement may be off. However, I’m sure this will be an aching read for anyone who has experienced some kind of loss or parental trauma and an insightful one for anyone who has not (do those people exist?) It is an objectively sad and moving story no matter your history. It is also a poignant meditation on family and ageing and grief and memory, on losing and building and growing and creating. It was incredibly hard to conceptualise and write about, but whatever its genre or veracity, I’m in awe of it.