Johanna, an artist, has spent the last three decades living in the US with her husband and their son. After her husband dies, Johanna returns to her native Norway. A gallery has invited her to create a retrospective exhibition, with a new, commissioned work as its centrepiece.
Johanna rents an apartment by the fjord, and a small cabin in the woods on the outskirts of the city. As she traverses the city, back and forth between the two places, she searches for a sense of direction in the work ahead of her, and for a discovery to bridge her past to the present.
What remains of the life Johanna left behind in Norway, several decades ago? What is she expecting to find upon her return? And what if that something should choose not to appear?
Is Mother Dead is a riveting and immersive story about the most fundamental longings and disappointments of our lives. In her unmistakable voice, Vigdis Hjorth blends deep psychological insight and keen empathy with perspectives from art and literature. At the heart of this novel lies the question of what it means to come to terms with one’s past, when neither making amends nor letting go is an option.
R E V I E W S
Is Mother Dead is an intergenerational bust-up that sends sparks flying.
It’s profoundly shocking, brutally honest, and intelligently conceived.
The literary exploration of the mother-daughter relationship in Is Mother Dead is both universal and courageous – and delivered with linguistic aplomb and stylistic confidence displaying Hjorth’s usual quality.
The relationship between mother and daughter could hardly be portrayed in a manner that is more critical and heart-breaking than Vigdis Hjorth does in her novel Is Mother Dead.
Vigdis Hjorth proves herself yet again to be a great author.
Beautifully modulated language, a sharp gaze, and the ability to depict, with merciless frankness and deep psychological insight, the central character (…)
Hjorth has a unique ability to create both large and small canvasses with apparently simple means, alternating texts, some told almost in the language of riddles or as brief, poetic stanzas, rhymes, or recurring phrases (…)
Is Mother Dead is superb writing, shocking, compelling and recognisable (…)
This is a hard-core mother-daughter relationship in a form which is elegant and linguistically coherent.
Is Mother Dead is a brilliant, almost physically painful novel (…)
Is Mother Dead is an important novel that reveals to us an artist’s inner processes that spark a debate.
Vigdis Hjorth is back at her best, with a raw and painful book (…)
Brave and uncompromising.
A universal and powerful story about childhood wounds that never heal and a mother’s love that may not endure everything.
Is Mother Dead is a strong and very good book.
Vigdis Hjorth's Is Mother Dead is a brooding and searching novel that proves why she is among our very best.
The book resembles a thriller; the crescendo is edge-of-your-seat literature. Hjorth is an expert in plotting and linguistic rhythm. Long sections are broken up by pages with plenty of air and low-key reflections, several of which you will return to and read again and again.
(…) among her very best.
DAGENS NÆRINGSLIV (Norway)
With Is Mother Dead, Vigdis Hjorth has written one of the most exceptional and accurate accounts of loss that I can remember ever reading.
The last 30 to 40 pages of Is Mother Dead are a crescendo of a very rare kind, and when I had read the last sentence my body reacted with a spontaneous gasp – of delight and amazement. Hjorth [has] written her finest novel yet. I will never forget Johanna.
[A] harrowing and propulsive novel about the strained tether between daughters and mothers…lucidly translated by Charlotte Barslund. Hjorth deftly conveys the psychological warfare of familial conflict in circuitous, searching sentences. Fragments replicate the stab of betrayal, run-ons rummage for truth amid lies.
THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW (USA)
Hjorth delivers a gripping tale of obsession about an artist and her frayed relationship with her family. [She] keenly walks the line between Johanna’s concern and mania; as Johanna’s hang-ups occasionally spin out of control, they remain true to the character. This accomplished novel is hard to shake.
PUBLISHERS WEEKLY (USA)
Hjorth has masterfully written a family drama where no reunion takes place and a thriller where no blood is shed.
Writing with a rush of anxious interiority beautifully reproduced by Barslund's translation, Hjorth spins out Joanna's hopes, fears, and half-suppressed memories in obsessive and propulsive run-on sentences, full of self-reflexive questions and crushing doubt...Is Mother Deadboth pulls readers into Joanna's adventure and calls on them to become more alive to their own task, their arms stretching upward for the next rung.
ASYMPTOTE JOURNAL (USA)
Is Mother Dead is thrilling work.(…) the novel feels liberating. In the struggle to break free, and in the impossibility of really breaking free, from our abusers and our own pain, there can be, in a hand as deft as Hjorth’s, an energy both creative and destructive.
THE TELEGRAPH (UK), five/five stars
The strength in this fictional story stems, as it is in the best Nordic works of art (think of Ibsen, Munk, Bergman), from the authorial effort to represent a human existence lived consciously, which requires a strong emotional and intellectual will. Hjorth's prose is simple in appearance, as stated in the text, saying that reality, what we do every day to take care of ourselves, like doing the laundry, doesn't matter, as the essential truth is behind the facts.
EL CULTURAL (Spain)
In Is Mother Dead, Hjorth asks how we can ever draw a clear distinction between personal experience and a shared collective experience, between our own mothers and mothers as they have been depicted throughout history.
THE BAFFLER (USA)