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This issue’s cover illustration is from Crowns and Codebreakers (The Marsh Road Mysteries) by Elen Caldecott. The illustration is by Nathan Reed. Thanks to Bloomsbury Children’s Books for their help with this July cover.
Sicklit can be harrowing enough – from childhood leukaemia to heart conditions, writers know how to jerk an adolescent tear. Here, although illness is at the core of everything, Ingelin Rossland offers much more: examples might range from Jesus’ thoughts before His death given the possibility of resurrection, to a midnight climb up the outside of the most northerly mediaeval cathedral in Europe, or hitching a lift from a cuckolded ex-midwife lorry driver who’s a passionate Dolly Parton fan. Few novels can match such ambition, though the approving comments of 13 year old readers on the Web suggest they’ve taken Minus Me in their stride.
12 year old Linda lives in Trondheim with her caring parents, who long for another child. There have been a couple of miscarriages, for which Linda blames her own erratic behaviour. Now Mother is pregnant again. Riding the tram home from school, Linda meets a boy, slightly older than herself – he’s strangely intense and somehow seems to know her, though she’s never seen him before. Linda and her best friend, Maria, take part in a diving competition where, making her second dive, Linda collapses in the water. That’s how things begin - we’re now on p.34 - and, as it turns out, it’s also how they end.
She returns to school, unable to join in anything vigorous, since her failing heart could be cured only by a transplant. She and Maria compile a list of ‘all the things we’ve got to do when we’re thirteen’: Kiss, Go to parties, Experience real love, Wear make-up and so on. Since time might be limited, Linda decides to be proactive. So much to find out (hence that cathedral climb to break in and talk to God) and wrongs to right. In particular, when on holiday the previous summer in Southern Norway, she treated Axel, a local boy, very badly. She’d mocked him for writing poetry, even though some of the verse was about his feelings for her. So she sets off, without her parents’ knowledge, to tell him ‘We were destined for each other. From when we were kids.’ Zak, the mysterious boy of the tram, has already appeared from nowhere at key moments and now he travels south with her.
Events are reported in the 3rd person and the present tense, creating both immediacy and, as improbabilities mount up, an out-of-time unreality – we’re deprived of the established certainties of a story told in retrospect. As Linda comes to understand, she experiences so many coincidences, so many chance meetings, each forcing recognitions about herself – her selfishness, her spitefulness. Though she is, without trying, completing that To Do list, she’s also learning about dying and living. Her many conversations with Zak prompt him to one-liners such as ‘“And don’t forget, the only place we can be is here and now”’. Even as Linda ridicules such triteness, she concedes she’s grasping what it means to live in the moment and glimpsing a love which goes beyond the conventional romantic notions she began with.
Now, something of a ‘spoiler’, I’m afraid. Linda died in the pool back there on p.34. The rest of the novel, we must believe, records a psychological and spiritual journey lasting no time at all, or 258 pages. The theology, you might say, is unconventional. Zak, who is her unborn brother, is a ‘meeting-soul’, there to ease Linda’s transition to ‘the other side’. As she passes into that world, he will be born to her parents in Trondheim. A re-reading confirms that oblique clues have been there to be found throughout.
The occasional differences of the Norwegian setting should interest rather than distance a reader – and Deborah Dawkin’s unobtrusive translation will enhance the experience. The book demands a reader open to a text where mundane logic must be abandoned, unafraid to reflect – alongside Linda - on the nature of death and the potential of life, no matter how short.