USEREVIEW 125: Our Duty to Each Other
Becca Lawlor, editorial intern at The Ampersand Review, reflects on the loneliness between all of us, and specifically The Loneliness in Lydia Erneman’s Life, in this traditional review of Rune Christiansen’s latest novel translated by Kari Dickson (Book*hug Press, 2023).
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In its title, The Loneliness in Lydia Erneman’s Life by Rune Christiansen, translated by Kari Dickson, speaks of loneliness as if it were a character, ever present. Loneliness manifests itself within Lydia and is uniquely her own, and yet, ironically, it is the thing that stands in the way of connecting with others that pushes readers further into Lydia’s world — a sense of community and understanding is found for readers.
The Loneliness in Lydia Erneman’s Life has already been recognized as a significant piece of literature in Norway, having won the most prestigious literary prize in the country: The Brage Prize. But Christiansen’s story ultimately transcends language, culture and countries by raising questions about community, human connection and what is it to live a worthy, good life.
Lydia Erneman has a strained relationship with her parents and put even more distance between them after she moved away from her family farm to the south of Sweden for school and then again to Norway once her studies were complete. As a practising veterinarian, Lydia has an honourable occupation, can afford her dream house and never wants for food. However, there is something missing from her life. It isn’t until her mother passes away that she seems to grow more aware of the potential permanence of this gnawing gap within herself.
People’s inner worlds and experiences are vast and sometimes are difficult to communicate. I think it’s marvellous to offer representation of someone struggling to bridge that gap between themselves and others. Loneliness is not an uncommon experience and one that many books explore, yet it’s not particularly common to discuss with people you don’t know well. For someone like Lydia, who doesn’t know anyone well, who does she talk to? Does one need to talk to overcome loneliness? The ending proposes a way to rebuild those connections within oneself and thereby with others.
Throughout the book, her vocation as a vet comes through as an instrument of her care for others, in life and in death. But, in some ways, Lydia feels as connected to animals as she does to humans. She cannot truly communicate with them, but she’s studied them and wants what is best for them. Her relationships with people take on a similar texture, wherein readers cannot see her truly communicating fully, but she tries as best she can. She does not pine for a love interest, nor delude herself into a grand romance. There is simplicity and nuance to her self-awareness that she wants more but isn’t sure how to get it.
One of the most remarkable techniques used in the book is its structure and how it enhances the experience of loneliness within readers. Lydia’s isolation is reflected in the narration and structure of the story; recounting most dialogue in summary, the narration sequesters readers from the other characters, preventing us from forging real connections with anyone. It’s only Lydia that readers can get close to, only her thoughts that readers have access to; and it’s here where she can speak freely and say those difficult things to us that she can’t say aloud to others. When Lydia gives a young boy’s dog a fatal overdose to ease its suffering, she cannot summon the courage to be frank about her assessment or her treatment. Instead, she allows the boy to hope. It’s only to us, the readers, that she confides: “She put a hand on Johan’s shoulder. She got the feeling that the boy imagined she had sorted out all the details in some great plan, but the truth was that she had set the animal on its way to death.”
Even though it is her profession to give people straight answers to help them comprehend painful things like their dog dying, Lydia is unable to do that for Johan. She says plainly to us, without euphemism or evasiveness, that what she did should have killed the animal. Her desire to stave off this pain for Johan demonstrates Lydia’s kindness, but if the dog were to have died, would this encouraged hope truly have been generous? Death is difficult to talk about, like many things in life. Christiansen’s use of subtext and muted dialogue, contrasted with the directness in her inner monologue, shows us how much could be said in those difficult times; Christiansen is asking readers when directness or silence is kinder. Lydia’s story demonstrates that the line may be blurrier than some think, reinforcing the theme that communication is hard and connection is even harder. Even if people speak the same language and love each other, sometimes words fail us.
The Loneliness in Lydia Erneman’s Life is about connection to others, as well as our connection to life and death. A profound fear Lydia struggles with is what she sees in her father after her mother passed away. Not only does Lydia wrestle with losing her mother, but she also contends with how the loss has reshaped her father’s life and identity. Despite wanting to be close to people, Lydia’s choice to decrease or increase the physical and emotional distance between those around her is self-defensive and likely stems from a fear that she will also be lonely like her father one day.
This whole novel is told very delicately when dealing with character interactions, but demands more from readers. As a vet, Lydia’s own struggle with loneliness prevents her from being as direct as needed at times. When an old woman who lives alone asks Lydia to check on her dog, Lydia tells readers, “[she] saw straightaway that life had abandoned it […] What should she say? Simply that it was dead?” By posing the question to herself — and also readers — rather than being direct with the old woman, she demonstrates her fear of what her actions can cause. In this instance, Lydia sees the old woman as “a portrait of a lonely life” and possibly fears what acting as the messenger of the dog’s death will do to the woman.
This fear of loneliness is so insidious in Lydia, as though she has the power to bestow it rather than alleviate suffering in pain and death as a veterinarian. She comforts the woman in her grief, and then tries to clean herself from it when she gets home, but the woman’s loneliness seems to remind Lydia of her own: “What was Edvin doing? What was he doing right now? […] And what about her father? […] And what was Dagmar up to?” Again, Lydia is not asking her loved ones these questions, but asks herself and readers what she truly wishes she could say. Christiansen is perhaps commenting that one’s deepest hopes and fears are ones that are often too difficult to communicate. However, by voicing them to readers, we are given a space to explore these painful questions that perhaps we wouldn’t otherwise articulate but wish we had the courage to say in our own relationships.
I think this is a brave story to voice, one that society may not always grant people the space to openly discuss. We all have roles to play in this world: to uplift our communities or to be counted on for certain tasks. When one does those things well, without complaint, and outwardly seems fine, it can be hard to pinpoint what is missing from one’s life. At one part in the book, Lydia realizes, “No one must know who I am.” In voicing this to readers, she acknowledges that people do not know her; however, “must” could also mean that she does not want to be known or fears people knowing her true self. The different ways to interpret this sentence hint at her conflicted desires to be known and connected to others. Perhaps Lydia is worried people will not like who she truly is, and thus, she seeks to stay unknown. Perhaps she does not know how to begin bridging the gap between herself and others and calmly resigns herself to being distanced in other’s stories the way the characters are to us.
The loneliness and sense of distance between her and other people is culturally resonant in an era when many of us have spent years apart from other people and may be beginning a slow reintroduction to in-person connection. We may find those soft skills of small talk or urgent needs of connection floundering in the face of clumsy conversation.
While Lydia hasn’t needed to contend with a pandemic, her lifestyle has created a social isolation that provides readers with a sympathetic and understanding perspective to what many people may be facing. There is a sense of catharsis in knowing we are not alone our loneliness; it is an experience that transcends languages, countries and cultures. In this way, Christiansen has given readers a sense of reassurance. This novel offers readers a marvellous exploration of fulfillment, human frailty and that distance between ourselves and each other.
There’s a quote near the end of the book that encapsulates the essence of Lydia’s ethics: “What was it her mother used to say? That openness deserves openness in return, and that what closes also deserves to be met with openness.” This is such a tender and equitable way to engage with people; regardless of how they present themselves, Christiansen is positing that everyone deserves the same generosity; that even if people don’t speak their mind or voice their desire for connection, one shouldn’t dismiss others’ need for it or one’s responsibility to offer connection.
The Loneliness in Lydia Erneman’s Life will spur introspection and encourage readers to look closer at those around them. It’ll make you grateful for community and wonder at the necessity of it. It asks us what our duty is to each other.