Danish writer Josefine Klougart has written an evocative, eerie novel of love and injury in One of Us Is Sleeping. This unconventional work jettisons many elements of traditional storytelling. Rather than creating a conventional narrative, Klougart unfurls her story through haunting and daring language. The result is less a story than an ever-changing landscape of shifting moods, rendered in surprising swings of words that engross the reader in Klougart’s dynamic world of dreams and nightmares.
The unnamed narrator of One of Us Is Sleeping has lost her boyfriend to a sudden and unexplained illness. At the same time, her mother is ill with a terminal disease. The narrator returns to her parents’ house to confront the traumatic changes in her life. In one place, she explains the radical confusion she endures: “An odd sense, all of a sudden, of things being arbitrary. That it’s not a dead man who’s important; suddenly it’s someone else, the new man, on who, on whom my life depends.” The narrator’s love has died, and she finds another man. She carries with her a sense of dislocation and unease: “I think to myself: can I never be in just one place. Without that magnetism.” From these disquieting thoughts, the narrator ties her reflections to the weather outside her window, demonstrating the kind of emotional and climate swings that Klougart is always conjoining in this novel: “That’s what the snow does. Or that’s the illness that snow cannot cover up, cannot heal; the snow as salt falling upon injured raw thoughts, raw emotions.”
At her parents’ country home the narrator ponders her errors: “I think: what am I doing here, in my parents’ bed. I’m far too old to lie here. . . . Everything is the opposite. The snow is whirling up, vanishing into a cloud that cannot be distinguished from the sky.” The harsh conditions of Denmark’s winter are the ideal images of the narrator’s upside-down existence: “there is unease because everything outside is shrouded in winter and cannot breathe.” The climate colludes with the narrator’s sense of her doom: “something was left behind beneath the snow, something that would be found again in spring.” Winter sets in, and the “foundations are ravaged by frost, water pipes burst like blood vessels. A trickling of life, and of spring, but the damage there, behind the mind, behind the walls.” Throughout the book, nature maintains a steady, at times merciless, drumbeat, forcing the narrator to tell her tale with the urgency of a winter storm.
Klougart often changes the perspective of her novel by moving between first- and third-person perspective, sometimes in the same sentence. But this does not change the sense of nature and the narrator moving along parallel tracks: “it is summer, and she has opened the windows of the apartment wide. . . . There is not a breath of air in the apartment, which smells like bottled summer; the sun vanishes behind the building opposite. The apartments are preserving jars, eyes; plums molder, voices, a partial vacuum, merely, keeping everything in place, home.” But even in her memories, the narrator fails to find rest, for the memory of her lost lover accompanies her into the life-filled abundance of summer: “She stands in the afternoon sunlight, imagining catastrophes again.”
To an extent, even objects unconnected to nature haunt the narrator and provide potent symbols of loss. The narrator watches her mother put sweet Shrovetide buns in the oven. When the baked bread emerges, it is described in sinister imagery: “The bread has risen immensely, its back split open like a wound. The bread, the comb of its open spine.” A few paragraphs later, as the bread cools on a rack, we are told that the “Shrovetide buns . . . sizzle on the tongue of metal.”
But overwhelmingly it is the plant and animal world that Klougart makes use of when mapping out the emotional terrain of her narrator. In a flashback, as her relationship with her boyfriend grows sick, the natural images become sharper, more violent, and invade the domestic sphere: “The apple tree runs in through the window and along the hall. Its branches are trailing flames. The apples bruise against the wall.” Nature is actively at war with the narrator. Her lover is dead, and “he will perhaps be standing under the trees. As though waiting to be consumed. By nature. Because he is missing something and doesn’t know quite what.”
Toward the end of the novel, Klougart details how nature’s intrusion into human life acts as a marker of passing of time. The narrator explains that she “finds it unreasonable not being allowed to be saddened by time passing away. By doing things that cannot be undone, by suddenly dying.” The narrator finds another man, but she is torn apart by the experience, and this is mirrored in the natural world: “Her body is confused like nature these days; spring flowers finding their way into winter, snow in May, elderflower in February. . . . One minute the body is a festival, the next it is a darkened tunnel through which passes a shuffling funeral procession. A feeling of elsewhere.”
One of Us Is Sleeping transforms this “feeling of elsewhere,” this sense that life is not quite genuine, into a resigned mysticism. Eventually, the narrator follows the rhythms of nature’s struggle and, in this cycle of life and death, finds a kind of peace. Klougart has crafted a rich novel. Her evocative explorations of how words and life work in tandem to tease meaning from the seemingly inexplicable and random events of life combine to create a novel that is richly creative and boldly written.
About the Reviewer
Eric Maroney has published two books of nonfiction and numerous short stories. He has an MA in philosophy from Boston University. He lives in Ithaca, New York, with his wife and two children and is currently at work on a book on Jewish religious recluses, a novel and short stories.