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'Before You Sleep' quilts a harrowing, surreal marriage patch

By Karen Mitchell

Already an international bestseller, journalist Linn Ullman's debut novel, Before You Sleep, catalogues the quirks and passions of three generations of a Norwegian family as told through the histories of its women. From the tough-as-nails-and-twice-as-rusty Aunt Selma to the graceless and bewildered Julie, burdened at birth in a family of beauties with a giant pair of clumsy feet, the Blom women come alive through the voice of their youngest daughter, Karin. Together, the pastiche of tales creates a picture of one family's journey through the decades, as well as a compelling meditation on the meaning of marriage.

Karin's story opens with her older sister Julie's wedding to the "very impeccable" Aleksander Lange Bakke. Throughout the celebration, the focus switches from one family member to the next, lingering on both marital bickerings and congratulatory speeches to the newlywed couple. Ullman offers a patchwork quilt of partnerships and attitudes: from the constant battle between the unhappily hitched Arvid and Torild Lange Bakke to Karin and Julie's own parents, their temptress of a mother and the philosophical father who left them behind. And then there is Karin herself, a single woman with a penchant for seducing married men that began at the age of 12. Above all floats the ghostly images of Karin's grandparents, Rikard and June, and their storybook romance at the Cinderella Scissors Costume Shop in a fairy-tale vision of pre-WWII New York--a mythical goal of marital bliss.

Oslo in the 1990s proves more difficult to navigate, however, as Karin details her sister's spiral into despair after Aleksander turns out not to be an impeccable husband after all. As the Blom women gather to comfort her, Ullman shows the many-faceted and often unfathomable nature of marriage through their bittersweet conversation. Can even Torild and Arvid share a deep, secret affection for each other, and can there be hidden flaws in the legendary romance of Rikard and June? Can one pinpoint the exact moment when a marriage ends, and is happiness the point of marriage anyway? Ullman's sparse, almost vague characterization and dialogue hint at the uncertainty of the characters and at the fleeting nature of the perfect relationship and the surety that said relationship exists. The barriers between human connection, however, are as tangible as the giant rock that mysteriously appears one night between Aleksander and Julie as they sleep, pushing them further and further apart.

Like a Norwegian Ally McBeal for the literary set, Karin's narration ("sublimely unreliable" as it's repeatedly described on the book jacket) is often given over to flights of surrealist fancy. While relating one of her neurotically charged sexual escapades, the object of her seduction suddenly balloons in size, threatening to crash through the roof and out into the sky, inflated by Karin's flattery. Another lover, Carl, suddenly transforms into a giant mackerel, whining and wiggling atop Karin's bed after she removes his "magical" plum-colored cowboy boots. While this fantasy device does offer some exquisite descriptions and allows Ullman some concrete metaphors, the passages aren't consistently relevant and often become confusing and somewhat irritating.

To her credit, Ullman remembers to capture not only the high drama of her dysfunctional clan, but also the everyday quirks, such as an uncle's unfortunate tendency to vomit helplessly at every family gathering, bringing the novel back down to earth after some of its more ostentatious moments. Ullman's prose often seems simultaneously poetic and oddly halting (a characteristic of her native Norwegian or a product of Tiina Ninnally's translation?) and is seemingly more often hindered than helped by Karin's cloyingly surrealistic soliloquies. Still, Before You Sleep manages to weave a haunting family portrait of both the ties that bind and the ties that ultimately unravel .

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From the January 3, 2000 issue of the Metropolitan.

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