Across the China Sea

Written by Gaute Heivoll Nadia Christensen (trans.)
Review by Rebecca Kightlinger

“This is what the new world was like: Our own asylum, in the midst of a forest, in the midst of the parish, forty kilometers from the coast.”

Norway, 1945. “Is this the end of the world?” Stepping off the bus and standing at the edge of the road in the rural parish where she is about to begin a new life with her husband, her son (the story’s narrator), and the daughter she is carrying, Karin is dismayed by the silence.

Karin and her husband, nurses specially trained in caring for the “mentally disabled,” have built a many-roomed house in the south of Norway, where they will raise their family while caring for clients. The first three are adult men who have suffered physical or emotional trauma that has rendered them incapable of living on their own. Soon, the family is joined by five young siblings whose ability to function has been impaired through poverty, malnutrition, and social deprivation.

As a boy, the narrator initially sees the men as “crazy,” but as he comes to know them, he accepts them as individuals, just as he does the siblings: Ingrid, who howls; Nils, Erling, and Sverre, boys who speak but do not fully engage; and Lilly, who cares for her siblings as if she were their mother.

Told without sentiment, this compelling tale is neither a tell-all nor a potboiler. It is the intimate account of a family’s life told with dignity, the chapters often ending on a note that invites the reader to linger for a moment rather than plunge ahead. The story may pick up in another time or place, but the skillfully crafted nonlinear narrative never confuses; and the thoughtful delivery of each character’s journey always calls the reader back. Recommended.