My Men, a novel by the Norwegian writer Victoria Kielland, offers both a dark twist on the immigrant novel and a lyrical retelling of a gripping true-crime case. Based on the real-life story of Byrnhild Størset—a Norwegian woman who came to the United States in the late nineteenth century, whose name was later Americanized to Belle Gunness—My Men diverges from the traditional portrait of an immigrant adjusting to a new life and depicts instead a woman driven by punishing circumstances of intense poverty, social ostracism, and gender-based violence toward notoriety as America’s first female serial killer. Gunness’s story has inspired ballads, films, a work of nonfiction, and a novel by another Norwegian writer which was written originally in English. For Kielland, who writes in her subject’s first language and centers her novel on Gunness’s interiority, Kielland avoids the pitfalls of distance and exotification that other works about Gunness might be more inclined towards to get as close as possible to her protagonist’s psychological landscape.
The real Belle Gunness immigrated to America from Norway in the 1880s, settling first in Chicago where she had an older sister and working grueling, underpaid jobs as a domestic servant and butcher’s assistant until she met and married Mads Sørensen. The couple owned a candy shop, though later it and their home suspiciously burnt down. Two infant children, supposedly their own, later died, and then Mads also passed under murky circumstances. In all cases, Gunness collected gains from insurance policies. After Mads’ death, Belle purchased a farm in La Porte, Indiana, and married her second husband, Peter Gunness. He, too, died of a suspicious injury, with the insurance money ending up once again with Belle. After this, Gunness began luring potential suitors to her farm, tempting them out of their solitude through “lonely hearts” classifieds, only for them to go missing. It was a devastating pattern that would only become clear when it was far too late.
The novel begins with the telling of another crime, not one committed by Kielland’s Bella but one inflicted on her: a kick to her pregnant belly by her employer’s son when, after a brief and deeply unbalanced relationship, she informs him of his paternity. It is a chilling moment made all the more powerful by Kielland’s prose:
Something was wrong, she heard the beating of birds’ wings, their deadly fear in the lingering silence. His look was streaked black, absent, perfectly flat. The slanting movement, the streak of light, the depths of them both, she couldn’t take her words back. . . . Everything was transparent, she saw it in him, this was the horrible moment before her body hit the ground. His foot hit her stomach, the leather boot hit the target. Then and there the world collapsed, lightning flashed through her, it was as if she had never existed.
The miscarriage that follows and the motivation for revenge it engenders would’ve been a turning point in a conventional thriller, but Kielland rejects the trauma-revenge plot for something more powerful and haunting. She offers no concrete reason why the fictional Belle is provoked into manslaying (in the book it is speculated that her victims number between fourteen), though Kielland allows for the stray wisp of cause and effect, a moment we can almost pinpoint as the reason. Rather, and to the benefit of the close-third person narrative, Kielland serves away just in time from rationalizing the horrifyingly irrational. What she brings to the fore is the world as seen through Belle’s eyes: vivid and gorgeous and savagely hostile, a landscape Belle desperately wants to be a part of and feels cruelly kept in its margins.
Gunness leaves behind domestic work in Norway to seek a blank slate and new life in the United States, but the gamble falters almost as soon as she steps off the ship: “It was perfectly obvious, the future had abandoned her the first chance it got.” Her loneliness in Chicago feels stark in contrast to her sister’s bustling family life, and the elusiveness of the English language becomes yet another hurdle to connection. Even the landscape itself seems to be mocking her: “The hot muggy air swelled above the water. Lake Michigan was laughing at her with its little stinging insect sounds.”
Kielland’s Belle is always painfully aware that there is something wrong with her and strives to make changes. One day, on meeting with her sister Nellie, Belle informs her that she’s adapted a new name:
Brynhild tried everything she could, she tried with everything she had, to make things prettier than they’d ever been and she started with the easiest thing and changed her name to Bella. And it almost happened, she almost became more beautiful, she almost changed completely, all by herself, she almost turned into a totally new person, it was like her face was a little smoother even, a little less recognizable. Bella picked up an eyelash that had come loose and was lying on Nellie’s velvety cheek, there’s no reason to hold back, she told Nellie, yes, well, it’s just a matter of wanting something enough, Brynni, Nellie said. My name is Bella now, Bella said bluntly, and she blew the dark little eyelash into the wind.
But the distance of that “little less recognizable” alteration here is the difference between her and her sister Nellie, between the reality Byrnhild’s life and the hope of another’s, of “Bella’s.” In a society where a woman’s appearance dictates so much of her fate, the mirror—at least as she sees it—reflects the limits Bella flails against. Instead of backtracking, of seeking other solutions, Bella makes another alteration: from Bella to Belle, furthering the distance from her reality in that relentless search for love and purpose. Her desperation echoes that of another doomed anti-heroine, The Great Gatsby’s Daisy Buchanan, who “wanted her life shaped now, immediately—and the decision must be made by some force—of love, of money, of unquestionable practicality—that was close at hand.” But the chasm between Belle and Daisy—indeed between Belle and most protagonists of marriage plot novels isn’t just one of class, it’s one of foreignness. It’s one thing to find yourself at society’s lower rung; it’s another to find yourself alien to society altogether. In a particularly telling choice, Belle meets her second husband, Peter Gunness, a fellow Norwegian, in the European section of the World Fair: a landscape of manufactured nostalgia for a homeland they had both left to find equality in a new land that promised but failed, devastatingly, to fulfill it.
The isolation that haunts Belle haunts her victims too, Scandinavians like Peter and Mads, men far from their homes who confer upon her their hopes of belonging to someone, if not to someplace. Belle senses this need and exploits it even as she suffers from it herself, weaving into her lonely hearts letters a gleaming beam of solitude she knows will lead men her way:
No doubt about it—there was great love in these letters. It burned through the paper, the Scandinavians were a people full of longing, so far from home, they came looking for her with such trembling and doubting and Belle answered them all as fast as she could, we’re going to be all alone with each other, she trembled as she wrote it, can you imagine anything better?
Kielland’s command over her portrait of Belle stays consistent and masterfully unsettling even if Belle herself is anything but stable. In one of the book’s most adroit uses of careful obfuscation, Belle forgets her own intention in calling these men to her, carried away by the power of her own deception till she almost believes it herself:
Warmth filled her head and crept all the way out into her fingertips, Belle needed a Norwegian, someone with money, someone who knew the language and the history of the ice-cold darkness. Northern light squirmed in her arms, she wrote and wrote for dear life. The truth lay right there in front of her, shining and clear. Love was the only thing that could save her.
In such lyrical passages peppered throughout the novel, Kielland allows us to image another motive for Belle and for Belle to imagine another motive for herself: not for money but for the means to another kind of survival, a salvation from a solitude peopled with almosts. It is these almosts that make Belle’s story, and stories like hers, so shattering: there was no possible life for her that she would not or even could not end up destroying.
The novel’s prose is characterized by a highly saturated, ripe sensuality that remains palpable and powerful in the translation by Damion Searls. At moments, the writing soars, and these tend to be the moments of not only intense emotion and interiority but also of propulsive storytelling. But there are times when one wonders if Kielland’s insistent use of rhapsodic corporeality—of touch, toxicity, surface, and color, of creaking and leaking and blending and blurring—is a needless endeavor to avoid what are frequently perceived as the usual traps of prose in thrillers: the traps of being overly simplistic, inclined to cliché, and willing to sacrifice poetry at the altar of page-turning plot. As a corrective, Kielland’s prose occasionally lapses into an opposite sacrifice, that of pace and clarity at the altar of poetry.
But this lyrical waxing doesn’t take away from the persuasion of My Men, a necessary repudiation of the uplifting immigrant arc, a kind of antithesis to Willa Cather’s My Antonia. Both novels use determiners in their titles, the former inspiring menace and the latter evoking affection; both are centered on late nineteenth century working-class émigrés who find in America an overwhelming combination of a seemingly endless, open landscape and a community of closed minds. But while Cather’s eponymous Antonia rises above rumor and gossip through resilience, optimism, and an irresistibly endearing authenticity, forging happiness on her own terms, the story of Kielland’s Belle is alternatively uncomfortable and haunting. It is one so often not told because of what it says about our history and society. Both stories are based on real women, though only the latter made headlines (the woman who inspired Cather’s Antonia led a blissfully unremarkable life, if that in itself was not remarkable in a climate so deeply inhospitable to women and working-class immigrants).
The fate of the nonfictional Belle Gunness fate is unknown: she was either burned to death in a fire or faked her own demise, staging her disappearance from a world that had chosen not to see her for so long. For decades people reported sighting her in different places, but there was never definite proof of her presence. Kielland, fittingly, declines to speculate. Just as the ambiguity of Belle’s fate adds to the horror of her story, Kielland’s refusal to provide an emotional and narrative conclusion reminds us that the most frightening stories in history are often the ones that refuse our need for closure.