Rum utan titel
(Room Without Title)
by Nina Hemmingsson
reviewed by Željka Černok
‘I have managed to organise things quite well’ – says the main character Eva at the beginning of the book. She's a single mum, with a loving relationship to her son Josef and a painter with a true connection with her art. So, a woman with her own money and a room of her own, to paraphrase that old Virginia Woolf postulate. How does she then end up in a bad relationship that nearly destroys her? What is it that is preventing her leaving? In Nina Hemmingsson´s novel Rum utan titel, we follow a woman who is trying to untangle this conundrum herself. It is a story often told but equally difficult to understand each time.
From the very start, something is off. There are days when Karl is nice and days when he withdraws from her and she spends those days trying to understand what it is she should be doing. It seems the reins of the relationship are firmly in his hands. As Eva’s sister puts it: ‘You are trying to figure out what he wants so you can give him that, instead of thinking about what you want.’ She is not even sure how the relationship is going, but happily accepts when he proposes to her. She tells him at the beginning that she does not want to have another child, but agrees to his wishes and they have a daughter. To everybody around her she maintains that she is happy, that this is what she has always wanted. A house, a husband, normal life. But her loss of control becomes increasingly obvious, while his need to control everything takes over. She decides to disregard all of these uncomfortable realizations in order to make the marriage work, but it proves to be a slippery slope into depression. The husband accuses her of not caring for their daughter, of caring too much for her son, makes her think there is something spoiled in her longing to be alone with her art. She feels like she has to constantly defend herself, that as a person she is not seen, let alone appreciated. However, she decides to disregard all of that and try to make it work. They go to couples’ therapy, she starts taking anti-depressants even though she cannot paint as she wants to when she is taking the pills. Time is passing, her identity is crumbling, she is aware that there is a huge discrepancy between what feels normal to her and this fake family act she is trying to take part in. Still, she persists, tries to be satisfied with what works in the family relationship, ‘tests the possibility that this could be enough’. But how to explain that to loved ones around her who see her suffering? She cannot say anything to friends, as that would mean ‘she would need to act’. As her exhibition opens, under the title The soul moves away from home, she realizes with horror that the visitors did understand what all those floating houses she has been painting mean.
Hemmingsson describes this disintegration in small, soul crushing episodes, like the one when Eva shows empathy for her husband by describing him as ‘the third child in the house, scared to death of losing control over all the other members of the household’, or the one when she starts crying when a random person shows her kindness. Eva cracks once it becomes obvious Karl is trying to keep her son away from her. She understands that she will forever be classified as a problem in the relationship, that some sacrifices are too big and don’t need to be made. She expresses it in an understated, heartbreaking way: ‘This has only now occurred to me.’
But this isn’t just a novel about a woman losing her identity in a toxic marriage; it also leaves open a lot of questions about the degrees of delusion in relationships, societal pressures and ideas of normality.
Nina Hemmingsson is a famous comic book author with ten comic books under her belt. Although this is her first novel, readers are in safe hands. Confident in style, calm in tone, with a fresh turn of phrase known from her comics, her sentences are simple but deep and truthful. In her beautiful, earnest descriptions of the artistic process, she reminds me of Swedish painter Stina Wollter and her painfully honest, but at the same time inspiring and uplifting monography/memoir ‘About this Art’ (Swedish title: Kring denna konst). There is that special something in Hemmingsson's work that rings true as coming from the heart, just as good art, in whichever form, always does.
Rum utan titel
Foreign rights: Gudrun Hebels Agentur-Literatur.
Nina Hemmingsson is one of Sweden’s leading graphic novellists and visual artists and has so far published nine graphic novels and a poetry collection.