BY Eloise Hendy in Books , Opinion | 26 OCT 22

Vigdis Hjorth’s Fraught Depiction of Motherhood

Eloise Hendy interrogates the complexities of merciless mother-daughter bonds in the author's latest book Is Mother Dead 

BY Eloise Hendy in Books , Opinion | 26 OCT 22

Midway through Is Mother Dead (2022)Vigdis Hjorth’s fourth book to be translated into English by Charlotte Barslund comes a childhood memory, which would give a therapist pause. Johanna, a 50-something visual artist, thinks back to drawings she made as a child, compulsively and after dark. ‘Whenever I couldn’t sleep at night,’ she reflects, ‘I would pretend that Mum had been kidnapped by a robber, but if I was able to draw her so that they knew who she was, they would let her go.’

The central concerns of Hjorth’s novel – the emotional impulses driving the narrative’s relentless whir – are all contained in this single memory. There is deep anxiety and unease in this insomniac child, who attempts to channel her disquiet through vivid and strange acts of imagination, which are all focused, laserlike, on her mum. Johanna imagines her mother held hostage, and, in turn, tries to capture her – drawing her over and over in an effort to establish ‘who she was’. Yet, this effort is, at heart, also about letting go. Johanna struggles to pin her mother down in order to release her, and, as any therapist might note, also release herself from her obsessive work.

The backdrop to this childhood story of compulsion, stasis and the work of release, is the fact that Johanna has not seen or spoken to her mother in decades. Having left her marriage, her family, the legal profession, and her home country of Norway for her art tutor and a life in Utah working as an artist, Johanna’s relationship with her mother is defined by rupture. What initially appeared to be a fairly innocent breach in contact has, over time, turned into an ulcerating lesion. In the eyes of her family, Johanna is guilty of two mortal sins: ‘I had left […] for a vocation they regarded as offensive, exhibiting paintings they found humiliating, I didn’t come home when Dad fell ill, when Dad died, when he was buried.’

Is Mother Dead cover
Vigdis Hjorth, Is Mother Dead, 2022. Courtesy: Verso Books 

After avoiding her father’s funeral, Johanna finds herself dead to her mother and sister. Yet, the novel opens with Johanna calling her mum for the first time in 30 years. Like her mother, Johanna has also now been widowed, and the prospect of a retrospective of her artwork has drawn her back to Oslo, to a rented apartment four and a half kilometres from her mother’s flat. And so, a twisted, lopsided game breaks out. Johanna calls her mum, over and again, always without response. She parks outside her house. She makes a nest in a hedge in her garden and sits there for hours after dark. She channels her disquiet through strange acts of vivid imagination, inventing every minor detail and emotional tremor of her mother’s life. In other words, she picks at the scab. By the time she comes to reminisce about her night-time drawings, the scab has opened to become a weeping sore.

However, despite assuming the form of her mother’s stalker – a haunting and troublesome poltergeist – the novel’s central dilemma is: who is haunting who? Johanna troubles her mother, and refuses to stay silent and distant, because her childhood still troubles and lingers. The questions that whip Johanna into madness are the same as ever: she yearns to establish who her mother was, and who she is now. But the two fiery-haired, widowed women are, intrinsically, each other’s uncanny doubles. While thinking of her childhood robber drawings, Johanna remembers her mum challenging her to depict her in the light of day, and producing an image in which ‘her face is lean and hungry and yearning, her arms long and paralysed’. Yet, who, really, is this yearning, paralysed figure? ‘Mum had pointed at the drawing and said with a distorted face: “That’s you!”’ All this time, Johanna realises, ‘I thought I was drawing Mum, but I was drawing myself, I thought I was studying Mum, but I was studying myself.’ Their estrangement cannot fully vanquish this terrifying closeness and dependency. Both mother and daughter are paralysed – despite their attempts to slip the bonds of their relationship, neither can escape.

Vigdis Hjorth portrait 2021
Vigdis Hjorth at LiteratureXchange Aarhus, 2021. Courtesy: Hreinn Gudlaugsson

‘When the mother fights the daughter, and the daughter fights her own fearful self, the two of them tied together by pain and rage, it becomes a matter of intimacy, not love,’ Johanna thinks in a moment of crystal-cut emotional clarity. ‘Such intimacy is merciless and merciless intimacy is erotic and will destroy one of them.’ This kind of ‘merciless intimacy’ is Hjorth’s natural terrain and was the central refrain of her novel Will and Testament (2016), which was published in English in 2019.

Hjorth is not the only contemporary author drawn to dysfunctional, fraught portrayals of the mother-daughter bond. Gwendoline Riley’s My Phantoms (2021) is nothing if not also a work of ‘merciless intimacy’. In Riley’s novel, Bridget and her mother, Hen, might not be totally estranged, but  Bridget certainly defines their relationship through distance and barely-concealed disgust. More than once, Hen is compared to a dog – an abject creature that refuses to leave her daughter alone. Despite trying to hold her mother at arm’s length, however, Bridget’s interrogation of her character increasingly appears not only driven by shame, but by a warped form of imaginative sympathy. Like Johanna compulsively drawing her mother’s likeness, Bridget too seems compelled to try and pin her mother down – to understand and capture her, in order to wriggle loose from her psychological and emotional grip.

In Is Mother Dead, Johanna imagines her mother as ‘a stone in [her] shoe’. Ultimately, though, in these merciless novels, it is neither the mother nor the child that is the fundamental nuisance, but the matter of intimacy itself: an intimacy that might not be love, but is unconditional; that threatens to destroy, but cannot be dislodged; that persists to blister and abrade.

Main image: Portrait of Vigdis Hjorth. Courtesy: Wikicommons

Eloise Hendy is a poet and writer living in London. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Ambit, The Tangerine, Emotional Art Magazine and The Stinging Fly among others, and she was recently shortlisted for The White Review’s ‘Poet’s Prize 2018’