With a poignant sadness, a young Norwegian writer, Kjersti A. Skomsvold, tells the story of a lonely dying woman in her debut The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Am.
The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Am won Norwegian writer, Kjersti A. Skomsvold, the Tarjei Vesaas First Novel Award while she was still in her 20s. Out now in an English translation by Kerri A. Pierce, the book is, like its protagonist, Mathea, small and unassuming but spry, whimsical and full of sly insight. There is little in the way of plot; an old woman, feeling anxious about her slide towards death, tries to assert herself through small actions. She busies herself in ways that won’t make a difference; she bakes a pie, she buries a time capsule, she vows to be more social, to talk to people instead of running away. She laments her past mistakes, her evenings wasted in front of the TV. She has spent her life as an inert observer, not a do-er, and she chastises herself endlessly for this.
Spotlit on a darkened stage, Mathea speaks to us candidly about her feelings. Everything is on display: her hypersensitivity, her fears, a crippling conscientiousness (i.e. at the supermarket, she worries one clerk will be offended when she queues up beside another clerk), a fair dose of self-loathing, an intense timidity. Mathea craves human contact but also fears it. She is ecstatic when a man asks her for the time (so much so that she does not see that the thing he holds in his hand is not a banana). She is hungry for human contact but, every time it occurs, it throws her into such a tizzy that she goes to great lengths to ensure it won’t happen again (i.e. she waits until the streets are empty before venturing out to the supermarket).
She is not alone. She lives with her husband, Epsilon, or so we believe for she speaks of him in the present tense, as though he wakes up with her in the morning, goes to bed with her at night. We hear her talk to him; on her way out to bury her time capsule, she tells Epsilon, “thanks, again” for the shovel he once bought for her. But, over time, through subtle hints, we are made to understand that Epsilon is, in fact, dead and that Mathea has been talking only to herself. When, mid-way through the book, this realization hits, everything she has told us becomes suspect. A gate swings open; we are momentarily unmoored as we struggle to recast all that we’ve read in light of this new knowledge. When did Epsilon die? Did he ever even exist? The reader then begins to wonder… is it delusion brought on by grief? Dementia brought on by old age? Is she, perhaps, mentally ill?
Skomsvold takes pains to keep things opaque. Nothing is ever said overtly about the discrepancies between Mathea’s worldview and reality. Instead, there are well-placed subtle interjections from the outside world that clue us in. “Epsilon is always careful to keep the watch wound, but now it’s stopped and it’s off by a week.”This clue, occurring 25 pages in and easily missed, is the earliest one we are given that lets us know that Mathea’s husband is, in fact, dead. There is another clue, also easily missed – Mathea has been wearing a black dress for days. Another clue, toward the end of the book: “…the doorbell rings. At first I think it’s Epsilon, but I know it won’t be him.” At another point, June, the next door neighbor, for no apparent reason, tells Mathea, “You must really have it rough.” With these clues, we are told that, despite her cheery chatter, there is something darker, more troubling going on. Mathea, herself, seems to have flashes of insight. “While I’m standing there, planning my next move, I have to close my eyes, I feel warmth growing beneath the lids, and think maybe I should bury myself instead of the time capsule.”We know that she is very old because she cannot straighten her back to see herself in the bathroom mirror and because she has virtually no hair. The realization that she is also alone, grieving and delusional adds unexpected poignancy to her situation.
Skomsvold’s novel is a portrait of shyness, of extreme conscientiousness. But it is also, more significantly and unexpectedly, a portrait of grief and love. While the voice, every once in awhile, gets compromised by too-clever-by-half witticisms that serve to pull back the curtain and reveal the puppeteer, the book, as a whole, is an original and intelligent slim work of art. It will be interesting to watch Skomsvold, just barely 30 now, trained as a computer engineer and claiming, in an interview, to have never read many books, develop as she explores her nascent literary talent.