“The person you love is 72.8 percent water and there’s been no rain for weeks.”
With that opening sentence to set the tone, Johan Harstad moves us gently into the world of Mattias, age 29, a gardener, a resident of Stavanger, Norway, a man who wants nothing out of life than to be unnoticed and unnoticeable.
I was the kid in your class in elementary school, in high school, in college, whose name you can’t remember when you take out the class photo ten years later…the one you didn’t miss when I left your class and started at another school, or when I didn’t come to your party…the one you thought didn’t have a life….I was practically invisible, wasn’t I? And I was perhaps the happiest person you could have known.
Mattias lives with his girlfriend Helle and works at a nursery. He idolizes Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon, because he was second. One fine day, he loses both job and girlfriend and decides to accompany his friends’ band to a gig in the Faroe Islands as their sound tech. But something happens….and the next thing both we and Mattias know, he’s in a residential psychiatric facility in Torshavn.
Mattias spends the next year navigating his new surroundings and coming to terms with his illness. During that time, he integrates himself into a community, making a human connection, with his psychiatrist Havstein, with the other residents, for perhaps the first time.
Havstein runs the facility with a loose rein and dreams of moving to the Caribbean. Ennen listens to The Cardigans and rides buses obsessively and believes she isn’t real.
Ennen gets it into her head that she is, in fact, that person, that person from nowhere, the person who looks at you that way, on a bus, on a train, or catching a plane, the woman you never see again, she’s convinced that anyone who mentions such an experience has in fact seen her, which is why she doesn’t exist.
Palli, a welder and sailor, barely speaks. Anna is the mother hen, the domestic goddess, the quiet center who keeps the household running. Together with Mattias, a family of sorts forms…or, more accurately, Mattias is adopted into the family already formed, each member with a weakness, a fragile hold on reality, each strengthened and perfected by the solidarity of the group.
Mattias’s thoughts tell the story, streaming in clear, spare prose and paragraphs punctuated almost solely by commas. This run-on running train-of-thought style provoked the occasional “Oh, come on, give me a period already!” response, but for the most part was unobtrusive and served the story well. The bleak far northern European locale — unfamiliar enough to this untraveled American that I had to find it on a map — is so fundamental to the psyche and behavior of Mattias and the others that it can be considered a character of the novel itself. And the story is bleak, gray, cold, like its locale, locked in a perpetual winter, but in the end, spring comes round again, and there’s warmth and sweetness and just the merest hint of sunshine for Mattias.