Although I’ve had to drop out of some reading commitments this month, I *am* continuing to stick with Annabel’s lovely #NordicFINDS event; and actually it’s been a useful nudge to pick up an author I’ve been intending to read for a couple of years, ever since her books arrived as a Christmas gift from Middle Child. The author is Tove Ditlevsen, the series ‘The Copenhagen Trilogy’, and the book I read was the first of the sequence, “Childhood”, translated by Tiina Nunnally.

Ditlevsen (1917-1976) was a prolific Danish poet and author from a working-class background, and the Trilogy has been described as an autobiographical one. Certain, the young girl who is the narrator and protagonist shares the name of the author; born at the end of the First World War, Tove lives in a working class neighbourhood with her mother, father and older brother Edvin. It’s clear from the start that she feels she doesn’t fit in, and her relationship with her mother in particular is difficult. The child is constantly the subject of physical punishment by her mother, and despite Tove’s determination to be a poet she has to hide her ambitions.

Childhood is dark and it’s always moaning like a little animal that’s locked in a cellar and forgotten. It comes out of your throat like your breath in the cold, and sometimes it’s too little, other times too big. It never fits exactly. It’s only when it has been cast off that you can look at it calmly and talk about it like an illness you’ve survived.

So the novella follows Tove as she negotiates school, friendship with red-headed Ruth who is younger but wilder and more knowing, seeks her mother’s love and approval, and watches her father struggle with unemployment. The relationship between Tove’s parents seems something of a mismatch; Ditlev, as Tove’s mother calls him, is a left-winger who supports workers’ causes whereas his wife is more superficial, concerned about appearances and you sense underneath the surface she’s a fun-loving girl who had her wings clipped a little.

As the story develops, Tove develops a growing closeness with Edvin, who like her can’t wait to move out of the parental home and strike out on his own. He manages to do this, but the work he’s doing is a strain and I did worry about his health going forward. Despite Tove’s continuing attempts to write, and even hints she might be able to get poems published, her future seems bleak: no chance of further education and the prospect of demeaning and soul-destroying work to bring home money for the family. I’m keen to see how her life develops in the next book.

I thought my poems covered the bare places in my childhood like the fine, new skin under a scab that hasn’t yet fallen off completely. Would my adult form be shaped by my poems? I wondered. During that time I was almost always depressed. The wind in the street blew so cold through my tall, thin body that the world regarded with disapproving looks.

The story told in “Childhood” is an absorbing one, but much of the strength comes in the telling. It’s a window, of course, into another country and another world, but added to that Ditlevsen’s writing. I find it hard to pin down quite why it’s so good; certainly she’s one of those authors who’s brilliant at conveying a lot in a few words. Her prose is crisp and beautiful, full of stunning imagery, and she paints really vivid pictures of her neighbourhood and the characters who inhabit it. Much is told obliquely or almost by omission; for example, mention of the fact Tove shares her parents’ room reveals not only the fact that she has an early awareness of the facts of life, but also makes the reader wonder about the state of the marriage. Despite this, she still has a naivety and as you read through the novella, you watch her gradually come to understand the realities of the young woman neighbour who goes out every night to earn a living, the group of girls hanging about on the corner, and that the dates of her parents’ marriage and her birth reveal much.

… as usual, I’m afraid of being found out. I feel like I’m a foreigner in this world and I can’t talk to anyone about the overwhelming problems that fill me at the thought of the future.

Tove is a a misfit; her harsh surroundings and the narrow aspirations of those she knows contrast with her intense longing for something more, expressed in her poetry. The harshness of her environment is encapsulated in the coldness and distance between the members of her family, and you sense that she is girl desperate for love and approval, which just isn’t there. The eventual development of a closeness with her brother is a spark of hope, but as I mentioned above I fear for his future.

“Childhood” was a mesmerising read, particularly because of the quality of Ditlevsen’s prose, and she certainly deserves the acclaim she’s been getting recently; I just wish I’d discovered her sooner! Fortunately I have the rest of the trilogy waiting and other work by her has been released by Penguin. So despite the fact that #NordicFINDS will end soon, I’m definitely going to continue with the sequence – whch will also have effect of dimishing the TBR! 😀