Cover image for Before you sleep
Before you sleep
Ullmann, Linn, 1966-
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Før du sovner. English
Publication Information:
New York : Viking, 1999.
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291 pages ; 23 cm
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Spanning three generations in the life of a Norwegian family, Before You Sleep sparkles with wisdom, acuity, and style and carries with it the excitement of a genuine literary discovery. As the novel moves from present-day Oslo to 1930's Brooklyn, Ullmann tells her story through the voices of the eccentric and formidable women of the Blom family whose passions and prejudices have formed an intricate web that bonds grandmother to mother, and mother to child.Hailed by European critics as "a real masterpiece," and "playful and melancholy, entertaining and disquieting," Before You Sleep unflinchingly explores the emotional terrain of marriage and motherhood, which Karin, the novel's young, complicated narrator, characterizes as "an endless stream of broken promises." Karin's wry, witty, and candid perspective suffuses the novel and it is she who introduces us to the others: her sister Julie, a wife and mother nearly destroyed by her husband's infidelity; their mother Anni, the irresistible seductress, and Aunt Selma, who drinks to stay mean and who fries girls' ears for breakfast.Linn Ullmann's marvelously accomplished and assured debut, already an international sensation, unfolds with the sweep and color of a symphony and heralds the arrival of a mature and gifted literary talent.

Author Notes

Born in 1966, Linn Ullmann has lived most of her life in New York City and Oslo. A graduate of New York University, Ullmann has worked as a literary critic at one of Norway's leading newspapers since 1993. She currently lives in Oslo with her eight year old son.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

At a wedding on a beautiful day in August 1990, we meet three generations of Norwegian women: Karin Blom, the narrator, and her sister, Julie, the bride; their beautiful and impulsive mother, Anni; and Aunt Selma, "the world's angriest old woman." All of the novel's threads are spun from this wedding. Karin decides to seduce a perfect stranger; the wedding stirs up memories of her childhood, especially after her father moves out, leaving Karin and Julie confused and Anni unhappy. Aunt Selma's bitterness goes back much earlier, to a falling out with her sister. Despite the toasts and the celebratory atmosphere, no one really expects this marriage to be happy. And, in fact, the novel opens and closes with Karin taking care of her little nephew, Sander, while Julie and her husband go off to Italy in an attempt to stay together. Not everything in this fragmented and impressionistic novel works. Ullmann is the daughter of Liv Ullmann and Ingmar Bergman, and her book was a best seller in Scandinavia. --Mary Ellen Quinn

Publisher's Weekly Review

A rich portrayal of mother-daughter relationships, Ullmann's ambitious first novel spans nearly 70 years and four generations of a Norwegian family perpetually in battle with itself. Narrated by Karin Blom, the capriciously clever and willfully unmarried youngest daughter of the third generation, the novel opens with Karin and her nephew Sander, waiting for a phone call from Julie, Sander's mother and Karin's sister. Julie is in Italy with her husband, Aleksander, where the two are making a last-ditch effort to save their marriage. The tension is such that the reader immediately senses that any news from a relative in this family is bad news. Julie's matrimonial woes unpleasantly echo the divorce of the sisters' parents, the annoyingly eccentric but "irresistible" Anni, and the distant, uncommunicative man Karin calls only "Father." This in turn leads Karin back to her grandfather Rikard, who turned his back on his homeland and made his fortune in Depression-era New York, and whose own marriage to Anni's mother, June, sowed the seeds of family strife. Karin's entire family experience has made her equate truth and intimacy with negativity and despair, and so she impulsively crafts elaborate tall tales and seduces men in the manner of a child playing at war. Ullmann deftly offsets her slow-building drama with Karin's fantasy sequences and perversely uproarious caricatures of family members. Ullmann, who has lived in both Oslo and New York, always provides fine background detail, but it is the irrepressible Blom women who attract the reader's sympathy. Rights sold in the U.K., Sweden, France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Portugal, Greece, Brazil, Holland, Israel, Finland and Denmark; 10-city author tour. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Sisters Karin and Julie Blom are 20 and 23 when Ullmann's wonderfully evocative debut novel opens. Right away readers experience their reactions to a moment of intense family engagement: Julie's 1990 wedding to Aleksander. Will their divorced parents behave? Will crazy Aunt Selma drink so much that she becomes verbally abusive? As we weather the nuptials, a phenomenal three-generation saga unfolds. Alongside narrator Karin, we plunge into a tale that deftly moves between 1930s Brooklyn and 1990s Oslo. Ullmann's touch is light as she explores a range of fiery topics. Immigration, assimilation, sibling rivalry, romance, fidelity, infidelity, patriotism, honor, and loyalty are woven into this slice-of-life look at one clan struggling to love and support its own. Originally published in Norway, this novel is currently a number one best seller throughout Scandinavia. Luckily, American readers will soon be able to join European fans in singing its praises. Highly recommended. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 6/15/99.]ÄEleanor J. Bader, Brooklyn, NY (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Excerpt Sander is quiet. Karin quiet too. That alone should tell you that something isn't the way it s supposed to be. Normally Karin talks all the time. But when two people are lying in bed in the middle of the night, waiting for a phone that doesn't ring, things tend to get quiet. What they hear is: the alarm clock on the nightstand, which is not ticking but droning. The creaking in the walls. The rush of the wind and snow outside the window. The insomniac neighbor next door who turns off the radio and gets ready to go to bed one more time.     Karin has promised Sander that he doesn't have to go to sleep until Julie calls to say good night.     Sander is seven and a half.     Julie should have called several hours ago. At this very moment Karin and Sander are lying close together in bed. Only their faces are sticking up over the comforter, along with a little tousled hair. Now and then Karin tells him a story. That's what she's doing right now.     Want to know something, Sander? she says.     What?     Remember that picture of your great-grandfather and all the others standing in front of the monument in Queens--in front of the time capsule of Cupaloy? Remember how we talked about all the things inside the time capsule? Things they lowered into the ground, stuff that no one can touch for five thousand years?     Yes, says Sander.     There's a story in there too.     In the ground?     Yes.     Why?     The people who buried the capsule probably wanted the people who dig it up in 6939 to have something to read to their children.     Can you read it to me?     Karin brushes his hair out of his eyes.     I don't have to read it, I know it by heart.     Really?     Just listen, she says softly, listen to this: Once upon a time the North Wind and the Sun were fighting over which of them was stronger, and one day a man came by wearing a warm cape. When they caught sight of the man, they agreed that the first one who managed to make the man take off his cape would be, forever and always, the strongest.     So then what happened? says Sander. He yawns, he curls up under the comforter. So then what happened? His voice is barely audible.     Is he asleep yet?     Karin leans over him, places her ear close to his face.     No. Not yet.     Sander sits up again. Puts his arms around her neck. His head against her breast. He wants her to say something. About why the phone isn't ringing. About the silence in the room. About the night.     What time is it now? he whispers.     It's late, Sander, she says, but doesn't say how late. It's really late. I don't think you've ever been up this late before. Wedding, August 1990 Once upon a time, almost nine years ago. It was the year I turned twenty, Anni went to America, and Julie married Aleksander.     I might as well start there.     I'll start with your wedding day, Julie--a sunny afternoon, August 27, 1990. Later, much later, no one could say that it wasn't a splendid wedding, oh no, you were lovely, Julie, you were so lovely. No one could say, with their hand on their heart, that you weren't a lovely bride. I wasn't lovely, I knew that. I've never been lovely. Short and thin and dark-haired with a little too pudgy nose. But it didn't matter. I could sing. No one was home when I woke up that morning. Julie and Anni were out, taking care of last-minute things before Julie put on her wedding gown and Father came to pick her up, according to tradition, of course. I remember that I woke up and walked barefoot across the rough hardwood floor, down the hallway, into the living room, and over to Anni's bar. I opened the liquor cabinet and took a little of her whisky, mixing it with a cup of cocoa.     I had moved out of the apartment on Jacob Aall Street several years before, but Anni thought we should be together, all three of us on "the last night," as she put it. I want to be with you on the last night before Julie gets married, she sniffled, it'll be like when you were little, oh how quickly time passes ...     I'll tell more about Anni later on. Anni is my mother. She's not quite right in the head.     Putting the whisky in the cocoa was something I did because I'm a nostalgic sort of girl--as the years go by I'll become responsible, mature, a survivor, and truthful enough, but on this day I'm mostly nostalgic--and putting whisky in the cocoa was something I used to do when I was a little girl. Not that I was anything as depressing as an alcoholic child. This isn't that sort of story. No, you were much sadder than I was, Julie. If I tried to describe my family, and that's exactly what I'm going to do, you could probably say that Anni drank to forget. I drank to be happy. Father drank just to keep going. Grandma drank to sleep better at night. Aunt Selma drank to be even meaner than she already was. Rikard, my grandfather, claimed that he didn't drink at all, even though people say he made a fortune in America by selling liquor--but that was a long time ago.     Julie was the only one in the family who was--what do they call it?--a moderate and sensible drinker. Unfortunately! It did her no good. She didn't forget, she wasn't happy, she couldn't sleep, and she was never mean. And she didn't get rich either. It was your wedding day, Julie. I remember seeing you up there at the altar, the tiny white flowers in your hair, the long pearl-embroidered, cream-colored, and much too princesslike silk gown. You looked lost in that gown, lovely and lost, and that endless long veil trailing behind, that veil that stretched down the middle aisle of the church, out onto the steps, down the street, across the fjord, through the sky like the stroke of a brush. Yes, I saw you up there at the altar and thought: This must be the most godforsaken proof of love that two people can give each other, promise their love forever and always, as if that's even possible--what is the minister saying? Do you hear what he's saying, Julie? He's saying that if the time should come when the two of you aren't strong enough to love each other, when you can't find the strength to love each other anymore, then you should know that love, love itself, is greater than any individual person's ability to love, because love comes from God, and God's love is eternal, he says, and you say yes, and Aleksander says yes, but Aleksander doesn't look at you, Julie, he doesn't look at you, he looks straight ahead, like the impeccable man that he is.     I drank Anni's whisky, added water to the bottle so she wouldn't notice that I'd taken any--just like I used to do. I put the glass and bottle back and closed the liquor cabinet.     Afterwards I got into my splendid red dress, stepped into my red shoes, and put on red lipstick. I turned around and looked at myself in the mirror:     Is that you, Karin? Is that you?     Of course. Even today. Not bad.     I turned around and looked at myself, yes don't you look fine, I said to the girl in the mirror, and the girl nodded, and the girl said: Don't come back tonight and say that you couldn't go through with it after all. And I wasn't exactly drunk when I arrived at the church on that late summer afternoon to bear witness to the impeccable Aleksander Lange Bakke marrying my sister Julie.     I was happy and light and just a little bit too hot in that prickly red dress--and somewhere inside me a touch of nausea. Anni is standing on the steps outside Uranienborg Church, all silky fine in a long green dress. Standing there Anni reminds me of the Caribbean Sea, big and cool and inviting. I don't think either Julie or I would trade our mother for any other mother if we had the chance. I at least wouldn't trade her in. Not Anni, our own glamour girl, Oslo's best hairdresser. Our own Anni, who didn't really want to be Anni at all, but somebody else entirely. Anni wanted to bathe in the Trevi Fountain in Rome, kiss blue-eyed movie stars on the lips, pat adorable and grateful children on the head, run her fingers through her own thick, long reddish-blonde hair while the world looked on and gasped. She wanted to get out and away, Oslo wasn't good enough, she wanted to go back to America--that same Anni, brought up in Trondheim but born in Brooklyn, daughter of Rikard Blom. Little Anni who at the age of eight could stand on her bicycle seat across Lexington Avenue in New York with one leg in the air and one hand on the handlebars: Hurray for Anni, they all shout. Hey, all of you, look at me look at me look at me , shouts little Anni, hey, all of you, look at me look at me look at me . And Anni turns around to see if everyone is watching, and the ground crashes up toward her, the ground crashes up toward her, and the bicycle topples over, and Anni turns toward me on the church steps and says: Karin, stay here with me for a while and greet the wedding guests. Anni is what you call an irresistible woman. That's what men say to her. Anni did not become famous or celebrated, Federico Fellini did not come to Trondheim to whisk her away, the journey back to America had to wait. But she was utterly irresistible all the same. Unhappy, yes. Bitter, yes. Drunk, yes. Stark raving mad, yes. But irresistible. Nobody can take that away from her. I remember once, a long time ago. Anni, Julie, and I and Anni's boyfriend Zlatko Dragovic from Yugoslavia were on our way to Zagreb by train. Zlatko Dragovic was Anni's first boyfriend after Father. It was summer vacation. We sat in a train compartment, the train rolled on, there were no other passengers in the compartment. Zlatko Dragovic said in that dark voice of his, in his broken English he said: Your mother in that light, can you see? Look at your mother. Karin! Julie! Look at your mother! Her eyes, my God, her eyes. Have you ever seen such eyes?     Then he quietly wept because he was so moved.     Julie and I gaped.     Anni licked her paws and glanced at us. I see that you're looking at my eyes, aren't you? He's right, you know. I am simply unbelievable . That's not the kind of mother you want to trade.     And Anni is standing on the steps outside the church, receiving the wedding guests; the sun is shining in her eyes, on her thick reddish-blonde hair, which she has put up with shiny gold barrettes; it's gleaming on her dark-green high heels that are scraping the ground.     Karin, she says, gripping my arm before I have a chance to sneak into the church, which is dark and cool. Help me out here, she says, stand here with me for a while and greet the guests. Oh look! Look who's there! she cries loudly, pointing at Aunt Edel and Uncle Fritz. She's still holding my arm tight, it's unclear which of us is more drunk, but don't think anyone will notice.     I've learned three things from Anni. I've learned that some people play their roles with care, while others play them sloppily. And you must learn to play yours with care, Anni used to say.     That was the first thing.     The second thing is something she told me when I was little, only seven or eight, and feeling sad. She said that you mustn't show them how sad you are. Don't give them that advantage.     I was sad because a boy in my class had promised to kiss me if I ate a worm. He held a worm in his hand, it dangled from his fingers, long and thin and gray and slippery, I remember thinking it was a disgusting worm. But all right, I said, fine, I'll eat it, and I let him put the worm on my tongue. It lay completely still in my mouth, and when I sank my teeth into it, I noticed how it softly, with almost no resistance, split in two. I felt a prickling sensation all over, there was sweat on my forehead and on the palms of my hands. You have to chew it properly, said the boy, who was following the whole thing with interest. We were squatting down behind a bush. You can't just swallow it, said the boy. That's cheating, said the boy.     I looked at the boy and thought: I'll do anything to kiss you.     I chewed the worm. I chewed it properly. I didn't open my mouth. I didn't throw up. I kept my part of the bargain. When the worm had turned to mush in my mouth, I opened wide and said: Is this good enough? The boy peeked into my mouth and said okay, you can swallow now, and I swallowed. I opened wide again and showed him.     Can we kiss now? I asked.     Shit no, said the boy, you think I'd kiss a girl who's dumb enough to eat a worm?     I cried for days. I cried because the boy wouldn't kiss me. I cried because I'd been tricked. I cried because I wasn't strong enough or brave enough to strike back.     That's when Anni said, after days and nights of crying: You mustn't show them how sad you are. Don't give them that advantage.     That was the second thing.     The third was a refrain that originally came from Grandma, but it was Anni who made it her life's motto. Never look back, just cross it out and keep going --that's what Grandma always said. The first time I heard her say it was when she moved into our apartment with us on Jacob Aall Street after Father had moved out. She took up a stance, ramrod-straight, in the middle of the living room, a tiny giant of a woman, and said, not without a considerable amount of dramatic flair: Never look back, just cross it out and keep going .     No way, said Anni after a few days, climbing out of bed; no way am I going to lie here a second longer and cry over that man, a goddamn mediocre middle-aged drunk who never made me happy anyway, that goddamn fucking rat prick, she said and blew her nose.     See that? said Grandma, pointing at Anni. A good soldier never looks back.     Anni isn't a soldier, I said.     Oh yes she is, said Grandma.     Julie didn't hear any of this. Julie was sitting on a chair next to the window in her room, keeping an eye out for Father's white Mazda. The only thing Grandma could do was stroke her hair and say that he hasn't stopped loving you, Julie, he hasn't stopped loving you.     That was the third thing. Oh, look who's here, says Anni. Here comes Uncle Fritz and Aunt Edel. Here comes Uncle Fritz and Aunt Edel, all right, and Anni lets go of my arm so I can greet them politely, the way she wants me to. Hello, hello, how nice you look today, Aunt Edel, oh, thank you, and Uncle Fritz, how are you? I said, how are you? HOW ARE YOU, UNCLE FRITZ? No, I haven't seen the bride yet. Julie and Father wanted to be alone for the last hour. He had some good advice he wanted to give her about marriage before all hell broke loose.     Uncle Fritz is Aunt Edel's son. I don't know how they happened to be called uncle and aunt, I know that in some way or other we're related. Edel has taken care of her son Fritz ever since he was born fifty-four years ago, they live together in a three-room apartment on Schønning Street in Majorstua not far from Anni's apartment on Jacob Aall Street, they take vacations together in the south, they run a little pastry business together, with the kitchen on Schønning Street as their base. Edel bakes cakes, the best cakes in town, as a matter of fact; she baked today's wedding cake, a cream cake with eight layers, just like she baked Anni's wedding cake twenty years ago. Uncle Fritz's job is to deliver the cakes to the customers. When Uncle Fritz was thirty-seven he moved into his own apartment, quit his job as Edel's cake driver, and told his mother that it was time for him to start out on his own.     Eight days later he moved back in with Edel.     The sun is prickling my scalp and cheeks. I'll be sitting next to Uncle Fritz at dinner. Anni doesn't dare seat anyone else next to him; sometimes he throws up with no warning when he's at a family function. He threw up on Anni at Grandma's funeral a year ago. Anni took it well. It was worse on Christmas Eve three years ago. That time he threw up all over the dinner table, it splattered on everybody, it's one of the pictures that didn't make it into Edel's photo album: a long white table, arms and hands outstretched, palms turned outward, trying to fend off the vomit; save us from that, save us from that, we don't want that on us, stop it, man! I see pale faces, one after the other after the other, all around the fancy white table, their eyes closed. I see disgust, so much disgust around a dinner table can't be found in even the most unhappy of families, and we weren't even a particularly unhappy family, but there were a lot of us. Unhappy or not, who can tell? There was a little of this and a little of that. But I can safely say that there were a lot of us. Copyright © 1998 Tiden Norsk Forlag A/S, Oslo.