In many respects, Norwegian Linn Ullmann’s Before You Sleep is standard-issue: three Generations of Strong Scandinavian Women. Two sisters emigrate to America in the 1930s, where they both vie for fellow Norwegian Rikard Blom, whose star-struck infatuation with New York City is painfully familiar. One sister marries Rikard, by whom she has two daughters. When Rikard dies after the War, the sisters return to Oslo, bickering over his ashes for the whole voyage back. One of the daughters, Anni, grows up to become both striking and ‘not quite right in the head’ – or so we are incessantly told, even if Anni never seems to do anything especially nutty. Anni has two daughters as well: the hapless, depressive Julie, whose husband cheats on her; and the spunky, aggressive narrator Karin, who is single and sleeps around.
Yet in this confused first novel, the conventional family saga veers sporadically into a jarring magic realism that lacks any apparent purpose besides literary experimentation for its own sake. Karin has an affair with a man who will never take off his red boots; at last she pulls one of