A graceful look at love and death



By Linn Ullmann, translated from the Norwegian by Barbara Haveland. Alfred A. Knopf. 144 pages. $20.

Linn Ullmann's provocative third novel, Grace, begins with Johan Sletten, 69, a journalist for an Oslo newspaper, hearing a doctor younger than his own son tell him, "This thing is spreading."

As in many instances in this tight, elliptical and thoroughly engrossing book, Ullmann elides the obvious; "cancer" is never uttered. Nevertheless, the reader knows as well as Johan the ominousness of "spreading." "'Spreading' was a word he had been waiting all his adult life to hear -- waiting, fearing and foreseeing."

The doctor gives Johan six months. He leaves the office, stunned, wondering how he will tell his wife, Mai -- the one, true grace of his life -- that he is dying.

Ullmann has an extraordinary talent for exploring relationships between people in love and who love. Her second novel, Before You Sleep, was a deft deconstruction of relationships in midlife. Grace plumbs the fears we all have that we will not face an easy death and that we will face that harsh time alone.

Johan has much to fear: As a teenager, his beloved mother became ill and he bargained with Death to take his father instead. His mother recovered and soon after his father died a harrowing, primeval death, literally howling in pain, abandoned behind the bedroom door while Johan's mother and older sister held their hands over Johan's ears until all was silent. Years later, Johan prayed for the death of his annoying first wife, Alice, and she dies in an accident, leaving him a large sum of money and a son, Andreas, whom he cannot really love.

The miracle, the "grace" of his life comes in the form of Mai, a pediatrician 17 years his junior, with radiant blond hair and a vibrant, efficient sensuality whom he marries two years after Alice dies. Mai loves him thoroughly and never ceases to make him feel a worthiness and dignity he has otherwise missed in his rather ordinary and somewhat pedantic life. Any and all happiness he derives comes from his love for -- and from being loved by -- Mai.

But dying changes everything. Johan -- the image of his dying father still appallingly fresh -- begs Mai to help him when the time comes, to forestall that kind of suffering and mindless animalism he saw in his father's death. The request becomes a conflict between them -- his fear of suffering, of becoming someone other than the man she has always loved -- and her fear of being caught assisting her husband in dying, which is illegal. She agrees and he feels relieved, yet somehow less in control than he had hoped.

Ullmann stunningly, consistently and with the very grace of the title, illumines the nuances of people who love each other taking leave -- the confluence of emotions: fear, loss, pain, relief and release are all intimated in her exquisitely subtle prose. As Johan begins literally to take leave of his senses and becomes more and more lost in the reveries of other times -- chatting with his first wife, picking wild strawberries with his mother -- the reader is left to wonder who exactly has chosen the time of Johan's death, Johan or Mai, and whether it is an act of love or expediency that prompts Mai's final act of their marriage.

There are no easy answers when it comes to death and dying and, as she clearly intends, Ullmann's ineluctable conclusions raise questions, about morality, dignity and the ultimate boundaries of love. This dense and immensely compelling novel lingers in the memory, beautiful, haunting and just a little frightening.

Victoria A. Brownworth writes for many national publications. Her most recent collection of short stories, Day of the Dead and Other Stories, will be published this year.

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