The Strawberry Girl

Written by Lisa Stromme
Review by Margaret Skea

It’s summer 1893, and the Norwegian fishing village of Asgardstrand is swelled by an influx of well-to-do guests and bohemian artists from the city. On the cusp of womanhood, fictional local girl, Johanne Lien, is torn between the freedom of the artist community and the safety of her familiar, uncomplicated background. Longing to paint, she is instead sent to work as a maid for the wealthy Ihlen family. Drawn into an uneasy friendship with their wayward youngest daughter, Tullik, Johanne both acts as a go-between and seeks to protect Tullik as she pursues the controversial painter Edvard Munch. At the heart of the story is Munch’s The Scream, Stromme expertly weaving fiction from fragments of fact and local lore concerning Munch’s relationship with Asgardstrand and the Ihlen family.

The physical depiction of the characters, real or imagined, is convincingly conveyed by strong imagery, e.g.: “whiskers… like an untamed hedge,” and their complexity revealed through their sometimes contradictory actions. Johanne is a beguiling narrator, with whom it’s impossible not to sympathise, as she struggles with Tullik’s adolescent rebellion and begins to understand both the power and the danger of illicit love. The novel highlights wider issues too, including whether art transcends consideration of others, or can excuse the inexcusable. Part of my pleasure in an historical novel is discovering how much is fact and how much fiction, so it was satisfying to find a comprehensive author’s note rounding off this very enjoyable book. I do have some reservations – I was unconvinced by the supernatural element surrounding the painting; disappointed that the ‘room’ in Johanne’s head, with which the book opens, seemed to get lost as the story progressed; and unable to understand the relevance of the quotations in the chapter headings – but recommend it nonetheless.