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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.

'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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