It starts as a dream. A secluded house on a hill, surrounded by nature, sea view. Wood stove, wooden floor, garden. Truly a home for the creative couple who wants to retreat from the busy life to dedicate themselves fully to creating. He is an architect, she is a writer. But the house – which would have looked attractive in the soft spring light – turns out to be unruly. The wood-burning stove covered in soot, the floor matte, the garden full of animal carcasses. And whatever they scrub, do small jobs or dig, it cannot be changed. “The house had absorbed an old, familiar seclusion.”
This is the framework that Femke Brockhus (1989) creates in her second novel, Little wobbly flights. everything is setting too casual a word. Because the house, the nature around and the sea outside are more than the background for the drama that unfolds. That’s really the drama. Because when the couple’s wife, Julia, disappears a few weeks after the birth of their daughter, she seems absorbed by the environment. The cold house, which creaks and rattles in autumn storms, gives up nothing, and all hope is swallowed up by the great, gray outside that threatens Brockhus again and again. Rain hits the house. Tomato plants choked by weeds. The grass turns to mud. Beyond howling clouds. The roar of the waves. The sky above the sea, ‘the ashen colors above the dark surface of the water, the little changes that pull and push, everything goes on’.
Brockhus debuted in 2017 with the fragmentary novel Let it be quietin which they, as in Little wobbly flights, the harsh outside world to compete with the inner world of her characters. She also showed that fragmented writing suits her: short chapters, lots of empty lines. She’s doing it again now. She tells the story of the couple in separate fragments. Who they are, what they do, how it got to this point, and what’s next. You can feel the deletion in the text. Removed a lot, just leave this alone. So every word seems important. At best, it makes the text extra concentrated, more powerful. On the other hand, blank lines sometimes suggest a poetic quality that isn’t necessarily there, and every sentence that gets twisted out imposes itself on you like an obligatory sledgehammer blow. “There are three officers at the door.” “She threw a pen at his head.” “She breathes the silence.”
Julia’s absence seems to be emphasized by all the white on the pages. Her baby’s screams sound more poignant – ‘The house is shrinking’ – in the measured sentences. Brockhus pulls her prose tightly around your neck, tightens and only releases air when she feels like it – and that is later than you want as a reader. Don’t choke, but don’t let it gasp too quickly either; Brockhus’s timing is impressive, the reading experience not always pleasant but exciting.
The architect’s despair is depicted in a harsh winter, but also his cautious revival in the impending spring. The daughter grows: ‘She falls to the bottom and stays seated. Pulling fistfuls of grass from the ground, chewing it. Find a budding crocus among the green.’ Thus the crying baby turns into a lively girl, and the ominous garden into a place where you find flowers where a child can play.
Only Julia herself bothers me. She comes off as one of those crazy troubled girls, “attracted to death” and “fascinated by monsters” – okay. She wraps herself in woolen sweaters that are too big, with thin legs sticking out – I think that’s typical. Legs on which she stands wobbly because she is ‘not in contact with the ground under her feet’, she has bad balance, yes we can already see her wobbly, little Bambi. Sometimes she just lays down on the floor to stare at the sky, saying quasi-profound things like ‘here we can lose the days’ or ‘I imagine what it would be like if everything was reversed that we walked into a vacuum. , only see the ground when we look up’. And of course she has cold parents, she doesn’t use the phone anymore, and she bit the architect on their first date – like a real Sylvia Plath (and we know how that turned out).
Julia is a little too much the sad version of Manic Pixie Dream Girl, an archetype created in movies and novels to cheer up the male protagonist with selflessness in the form of sweet tones, wacky dances, and disarming jokes. That depressed girl must trigger the care in a man, vulnerable as she is. In this novel: someone to pre-fry scrambled eggs, to hold tight in bed, to look for her when she disappears.
Or do I just see her that way because her boyfriend, the architect, sees her that way? Not as a man of flesh and blood, but as a muse, one to inspire him and thereby serve? He ‘anchored’ her in a new building (Made of glass! Breakable!) to be located in the middle of an old village. It’s pretentiously modern, it doesn’t belong there, just as Julia might not belong in the life where she was stuck with the architect. And there you have it: not long after her disappearance, the glass shatters, the building collapses – that’s saying something, isn’t it?
Yes, but what depends entirely on the reader. Brockhus has managed to tell something in less than two hundred pages, which can be read in many different ways. As a story of a tragic love, of escaping motherhood or, conversely, the development of fatherhood, of failure and triumph, as a tale of the urge to create, crushed ambitions, see and want to be seen. Answering the question of where Julia has gone is impossible without taking into account your own judgments and expectations. This is how Brockhus forces a showdown with yourself: what are you really thinking?
Femke Brockhus: Small wobbly flights. The busy bee; 165 pages; €21.99.