Ester Nilsson, the main character in Wilful Disregard by Lena Andersson, is either a complete nut or very, very normal. I still haven’t quite decided.
“The dreadful gulf between thought and words, will and expression, reality and unreality, and the things that flourish in that gulf, are what this story is about.”
The story is simple – 31-year-old Ester is in a content relationship with Per. She’s asked to give a lecture on famous artist, Hugo Rask. Hugo is in the audience, Ester has a fan-girl moment and then leaves Per – because she’s suddenly in love with Hugo. Hugo doesn’t give a toss about Ester, not truly, but in an all-too-familiar scenario, his indifference doesn’t deter her. The story reveals the excruciatingly shameful, truthful details of Ester’s actions and feelings.
“Like anybody in love, Ester Nilsson laid too much emphasis on the content of the words and their literal meaning and too little on plausibility and her overall judgement.”
The tone of their relationship is set from the outset when Ester observes –
“Hugo never followed up anything Ester said. Ester always followed up what Hugo said. Neither of them was really interested in her but they were both interested in him.”
For the first half of this lean book I wasn’t convinced – why would sensible Ester behave like an infatuated teenager? It seemed a little too easy. But Andersson gives you plenty of reasons to doubt Hugo and at the same time, reminds you of Ester’s sharp intellect – it leaves you wondering.
Woven into the story are deeper, more philosophical observations about love, making this a dense but compelling read (the Fatal Attraction overtones give edge although this is no thriller).
“The brain knows no tenses. If it has longed for something, it has already had it. The leap comes when we do not want to lose the future we have already known.”
Where this novel stands apart is in exposing the shame associated with a ‘one-sided’ love affair. You cringe as Ester contrives encounters with Hugo; wince as she ropes in her ‘girlfriend chorus’ to dissect the conversations she’s had with him; and feel mortified as she sends him another goddamn text message.
“In her heated state, Ester was unable to see that utterances could be as light as ash and just as burnt-out. They were scattered lazily, fell, came drifting down. Words were not enduring monuments to intentions and truths. They were found to fill silences with.”
Equally, Andersson examines the importance of power in love, specifically in terms of what is entitled and what is owed. Ester is fully aware that she is without power because she is the one who cares the most.
“The one applying the brake is always the one who decides. The one who wants the least has the most power.”
4/5 Compulsive reading.
I received my copy of Wilful Disregard from the publisher, Other Press, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.
“She was idly stirring the almonds and raisins served with the glögg when she saw him.”