A Change of Time: Ida Jessen

★★★★½

You must forgive the recent erratic posting. Life has been getting in the way, with lectures and work trips flying at me from all directions, plus some very pleasant socialising. Besides, WordPress have just introduced a new editor which isn’t quite as intuitive as I’d like. But never mind. I’m bumbling on as best I can, and have just finished reading a really gorgeous little book: A Change of Time by the Danish author Ida Jessen. Through her diary, a widowed school-teacher in early 20th-century Denmark remembers her late husband and uses her loneliness as a spur to revisit her life and, slowly, anxiously, recover her sense of self. For once, cover and book coexist beautifully: Jessen’s novel is like a Hammershøi in prose: a haunting, timeless, intimate exploration of loss, rendered by the translator Martin Aitken into elegantly spare English. Although the book won’t be published until March, I just had to write about it now, before the feeling of it fades; and it’s deeply suited to these long, dark winter evenings. A little jewel.

Our narrator doesn’t even share her name for most of the book. She is, and has for many years been, known by her husband’s name. Now Vigand Bagge, doctor and free-thinker, has gone, secretive to the last, keeping his mortal illness to himself: even, in that small thing, denying his wife the chance to grieve, to cherish him, and to prepare. Vigand was never a man for fussing. And so, with utmost selfishness, he departs his life and leaves his wife startlingly alone in the small town of Thyregod, where he served as physician for many years. The townspeople leave her gifts of food on her doorstep, offering her home comforts without intruding on her grief. And yet does the narrator grieve? Her diary entries record an ongoing conversation with her abrupt, irascible husband, whose no-nonsense put-downs even echo in her ears after his death. And, in this new silence, she sits and feels the discomfort grow, and wonders what life holds now.

Through her writings, we discover the narrator’s past: her training as a devoted, enlightened teacher, keen to support the free schools of Denmark in their mission to educate the children of country-folk. With her fellow students, she lives a life of ideals – a life that she is determined to keep up, even after finding a job in isolated Thyregod. Here she strives to teach the children well, and forms a cautious friendship which ends in confusion – and marriage to Vigand, then the new and energetic doctor of the town. It is the story of an arm’s length marriage, a union in which neither party has fully been able to show their feelings, and in which neither is happy. ‘Can one ask a person to show that they love you?’ wonders our narrator of her repressive husband. ‘Reason, that most faithful onlooker to the tribulations of others, says no. But what say unreason?’

One can’t say much more because this isn’t really a book about plot. It’s about feeling: the heart laid bare. Its true joy comes from the writing, and I’m not sure whether to credit Jessen or Aitken with that, because the phrases ring so beautifully in English. Consider how this conjures up the darkness of a Danish winter and the feeling of being suddenly, unexpectedly alone:

[There is a] strange gravity, the peculiar peace that descends in the evenings when the houses turn inwards and people retire to bed. I have begun to expect it, to look forward. It requires so very little. That I am alone, and that darkness has fallen. That I light the lamp. That I gaze into its flame. I do not think of day.

Lamps loom large in the story: a lamp placed in a window shows that a house is a home: that there is comfort and warmth within. But when all that makes a home is suddenly stripped away, what is left? ‘It might be night, it might be morning. No light on the stair. No light on the horizon. No lamp lit in the window. No moon held out in the palm of a hand.’ It represents not only life but possibility, and the most significant encounters in the novel seem to take place in that liminal space between day and night, in the twilight. It feels like poetry – told in slow motion, though with such matter-of-fact grace that it seems to be trying to hide its light under a prosaic bushel. It doesn’t succeed. A truly wonderful little book, a little pool of contemplation, which could have as easily been written in the 1920s, the period in which it’s set, as today. Except, perhaps, the final exchange in the book, the last couple of lines, which are so utterly delightful, so life-affirming, so beautifully romantic, after all that’s gone before, that they leave you beaming.

Ida Jessen’s quite a find. I wonder what else she’s written? I don’t expect to find anything which replicates this particular blend of old-fashioned beauty – the book is a tribute to her home town, as much as anything, and the sense of place is vividly conveyed, with all the detail that you’d expect of someone who has come to know a small space intimately. But I would love to see what she writes when in other moods. A fine addition to Archipelago’s endlessly adventurous catalogue, and highly recommended for those moments when you need some evocative peace.

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I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review

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