The Cold Song
Linn Ullmann’s The Cold Song, her fifth novel, is built much like the house about which its story orbits: Mailund, a stately white mansion set in the Norwegian countryside a few hours drive from Oslo. The house, nestled into the forest and cloaked in mist, belongs to the past; it has been the summer home of the Brodal family for generations, and their annual descent has endowed it with the wonder and deep mythos of childhood and family identity. The structure comes to the reader as familiar—we know it from Nabokov’s childhood summers at Vyra in Speak, Memory, and from the Ramsay’s retreat in Virginia Woolf’s _To the Lighthouse_—and so the beams of Mailund are as laden with our memories as they are with that of Siri, Jenny Brodal’s daughter, now staying at the estate with her husband Jon and their children Alma and Liv.
Milla, the teenaged daughter of an adored Norwegian photographer, joins the Brodal family at Mailund for the summer as an au pair. Siri, busy with her restaurant and frustrated with her marriage, and Jon, desperate to write the final novel of his trilogy and to keep secret his adulterous entanglements, entrust Alma and Liv to Milla. She is adoring and enthusiastic, if a bit young and striving. The arrangement is quaint enough until Siri announces,
Something was wrong . . . It had to do with Milla. Or something else. But Milla definitely had something to do with it.
With this equivocating shift, the house takes on a discomfiting air, and the reader begins to see the structure—both of the summer home and the book writ large—slightly askew. Mailund, unsettled, takes an uneasy disposition to the forest around it. What was familiar and comforting, so known, is rendered strange, even nefarious—it begins “to shine with an almost uncanny glow.” So too, Ullmann’s plot.
Milla is dead. In fact, we found her body on page one. By page two, we knew her killer. The facts had been cleared, the mystery solved, and the summer at Mailund, it seemed, was set to continue. We quickly understand, however, that these neat solutions only stage a more imperative, central problem. In finding a clear culprit for the violent death of Milla early in the novel, Ullmann subverts the traditional thriller structure, mirroring the uncanny rendering of Mailund, and foregrounds the The Cold Song’s primary mystery: what motivates the cruelties we inflict on each other? The upended organizing principles of the crime drama at the core of Ullmann’s story give us the structure through which to engage a more inscrutable accounting of the self.
The brutal and violent nature of Milla’s suffering puts in relief the more pervasive, malignant suffering that occurs within a familial and marital dynamic grounded in concealment and withholding. An investigation of the first prompts an investigation of the latter as Ullmann’s characters come to terms with Milla’s murder. These interrogations upset the emotional stasis just barely holding the Brodal family together. Their effects are most poignantly and heartbreakingly expressed by an exchange between Jon and Siri. Long sleeping in separate rooms, the husband and wife begin texting each other photos of banal objects, Siri from bed and Jon from the couch. Jon pleads, “Can I come and lie next to you? / I miss you. / I can tell you stories.” Reaching out through a weak and weakening cell signal, Jon is investigating what is left of his marriage to be saved. Alas, Siri has fallen asleep, and his pleas remain unanswered.
Ullmann’s deft and elegant pacing furthers her drive toward an emotional reckoning. Deploying the mechanisms of a whodunit, Ullmann details the marital and familial dysfunction of the Brodal clan as a crime might be plotted. She reveals and withholds, keeping her obscure object in tension throughout. This project is further facilitated by Ullmann’s attentive ministrations on the line. She is both economic and rhythmic, her prose tight but never unnatural as she narrates the interior lives of her characters. Here, Ullmann quietly displays her brooding mastery as Siri navigates her discovery of Jon’s infidelity:
And there was me thinking that we were the exception, that you were my one and only, and I was your one and only, and that the disaster that strikes everyone else, the most embarrassing of all thinkable disasters, the most humiliating and the most banal, the kind of disaster that we laugh about when it strikes others, would never strike us.
Siri confronts the hubris of love and the pain of relationships, cycling through and ultimately transcending cliché under Ullmann’s able hand. Jon’s adultery is the great crime of Siri’s life, more odious even than the cold-blooded murder of Milla. We are directed again from the external action of the novel to the tacit emotional crimes we commit against one another.
In Linn Ullmann’s The Cold Song, the language of love tires of us, and we tire, in turn, of love, bowing like the sinking rafters of Mailund’s great frame. How many petty crimes of deceit before we learn? The mystery, it seems, will continue to evade us.