The Gradual Disappearance of Jane Ashland

Nicolai Houm

Translated by Anna Paterson

Published by Pushkin Press 26 April 2018

192pp, paperback, £12.99

Reviewed by Elizabeth Hilliard Selka

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There’s been a certain amount of trumpeting about the first opportunity for those of us who read only in English to enjoy a novel by Nicolai Houm, the Norwegian author of several works including a children’s book and a whopping 700-page saga called The Hopeful which has prompted him to be compared to Don DeLillo. What few of the reviews tell you, however, is that The Gradual Disappearance of Jane Ashland, while complex and psychologically thrilling, is also very funny. For this, much credit goes to translator Anna Paterson as it is easy to lose the humour in transit. Okay, so the narrative begins with a brief glimpse of our protagonist, the eponymous Jane, possibly about to freeze to death in a tent in the middle of nowhere, which is hardly cause for laughter. But we quickly move on to Jane on a plane to Norway some time earlier, heading to explore the lands whence her family came to the USA. She reveals to the man sitting next to her that she’s from Wisconsin. He’s called Ulf (which alone sounds quite amusing in English), and hilariously cannot believe she has not heard of the Wisconsin Glacial Episode. ‘The Wisconsin Glacial Episode? Some 70,000 years ago?’ he persists. He’s a bore on the subject of musk oxen too, but he’s apparently quite hunky in his red checked flannel shirt and he’s company, so she ends up sleeping with her head on his shoulder, and accepting his phone number when they part at the luggage carousel, ‘just in case’. We know they’re going to meet again, and they do (hence the expedition into an icy equivalent of the outback, in search of, you guessed it, musk oxen).


So Disappearance is a romance? Of sorts, yes, but it’s not Ulf whom Jane loves, but Greg, her teenage sweetheart whom she marries and with whom she has a beautiful child, Julie. So where’s all this leading, and why and how is Jane disappearing? Houm shares with us the process, but only at the very end reveals the cause, though there have been glimpses along the way. It’s clearly something very bad, because Jane has been in therapy, the ‘core of her being’ shattered, and takes refuge regularly in the shower or the car, ‘the only places nowadays where people can scream out loud or wail wordlessly’. The event, whatever it is, has made her ‘fearless’, which means she’s not afraid to set off out into the world and say what she thinks – for which read ‘offend people’ including, cue further black humour and heartbreak, the distant relatives in Norway whom she traces and who so kindly welcome her into their home. Yet, while we laugh with and at Jane, and while she can be maddening (for goodness sake, Jane, give up the cigarettes!) our hearts go out to her, because she is feisty and bold and has clearly suffered a heartbreaking trauma which has caused her agonies. Like a limb returning to life after becoming ‘dead’ or numb from our sitting too long in an awkward position, Jane’s rejoining the land of the living is exquisitely painful. We are at the same time sympathetic and deeply curious about the outcome.


The title of this novel has several meanings. The Jane who once lived a full and rewarding life has been obliterated by the trauma, the cause of her ‘disappearance’ revealed to us only gradually. She has also literally almost ‘disappeared’ into the icy landscape and may die there for all we know (the environment and wildlife are sufficiently hostile to make this a distinct possibility). But as the narrative develops, Jane is also, ironically, brought into focus for us – little by little she emerges in all her vibrant, varied colours, from the miasma of her grief, to become someone whom we understand and about whom we care. The question is whether Jane can bear to live again, or whether she is instead gaining the strength to advance her own destruction and disappear for ever. The Gradual Disappearance of Jane Ashland is not a massive novel, ‘only’ a mere 188 pages, but on this showing the other one, the doorstep, is a book to whose English translation we can look forward with pleasure. Bring it on…

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