Linn Ullmann’s Unquiet is a devastating famous family drama

Ullmann's autobiographical novel about the fatherhood and death of a famous director is a heartbreaking reimagining of what a book can do

Book of the Week: Linn Ullmann's Unquiet
Book of the Week: Linn Ullmann's Unquiet

The narrator in Linn Ullmann’s Unquiet is in her middle age when she first receives a photograph of her parents together. A gift from her son, who found it on the internet, her mother and father “are sitting side by side, they are no longer lovers, but friends, colleagues”. Her son gave it to her “because they looked so happy and free and sort of goofy.

‘They look like they’re having fun,’ he said”, she writes.

This most everyday of things – a carefree photograph of two parents together – emerges three-quarters of the way into Ullmann’s novel about a famous family. By this point, we have come to picture both father and mother as distinct and separate entities. To have them suddenly, unremarkably, brought together in something of a side note feels like a minor earthquake. It’s one of the reasons why Unquiet is so extraordinary.

To those who know her background – Ullmann is the ninth daughter of famed director Ingmar Berman and the only child of his muse, Liv Ullmann – the book could only be based on her life. But to those ignorant of it (as I was), to read Unquiet is to fall into the saga and the demise of a family for whom everything, including love, was unconventional. In either case, I suspect the slipperiness of its basis in real life becomes background noise. Ullmann, who is Norwegian, constantly plays with the authorial voice in this, her sixth novel.

Ullmann has said in interviews that she “obsses[es] about that word between” – as in, between genres, in this case of memoir and fiction. She cites authors Rachel Cusk and Deborah Levy, both of whom allow their own lives to seep into their novels, as influences and their passionate blurbs decorate the cover of Unquiet, doing work to signal the book as autofiction. But two other words are also pointedly included on the cover: “a novel”.

If Unquiet is a novel, it is one that wears its construction openly: as a means of recording the life of the author’s father.

The narrator and central character - never named, and only referred to as “the girl” or “the daughter” in third person and “I” in the first as Ullmann switches between the two – is the daughter of a famous director and his actress muse. She is the last in a long line of lovechildren, arriving between the director’s fourth and fifth marriage. As a child, she spends the summer on the Swedish island of Faro, at her father’s sprawling, immaculate house, watching films in his private cinema and having pre-arranged meetings with him on a daily basis.

The book flips between these windswept, beachy days and those of the father’s final months, in which he and the daughter embark on a series of recorded conversations to inform a book about his life. The conversations are a failure: 12 hours of them, recorded over six tapes, they were abandoned for years until the daughter plays them back several years later, having hauled them out of the attic. Even then, nothing hugely revelatory happens – instead, they show the difficulties in communication between a dying man in his eighties and a writer-daughter trying to learn of his life.

'The life-changing things arrive quietly, and are all the louder for it'

Unquiet is what happens when memory and narrative try to fill in the gaps. It could be a gimmicky framing, but Ullmann’s switching between era, of parent (as she poignantly writes, she is in her 30s and newly divorced when she first sees her father in snow, rather than in summer) and of narrative form only reflects what she is dealing with better: memory, loss, grief, the complexities of love.

These fragments allow the significance of her parentage and oddity of her circumstance – essentially, growing up in the Sixties and Seventies as the suitcase kid of two dysfunctional A-listers – to unspool slowly. Hollywood hysterics take a backseat as other markers emerge: that of the importance of timekeeping, of loneliness, of a single blue dress that grows tattier and smaller with each summer visit to her father. It means we meet this director and actress not as celebrities but as parents and people, with the same inexplicable quirks and charms as anyone else.

And this allows Ullmann to deploy the most memorable and shimmering revelations of the character’s life and upbringing – of her father’s unthinkable last words to her, of her mother’s ever-bubbling depression, of both of their insistence on treating her like an adult before her time – with devastating aplomb. The life-changing things arrive quietly, and are all the louder for it. Pity and spectacle are absent from her writing, but nevertheless Ullmann’s words have staggering impact.

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