There is undeniable cruelty in Hjorth’s life-drawn depictions. Astrid, Bergljot’s sister (also, like Helga, a lawyer), is a monster of performative, egocentric goodness: “she thought it was important that we all listen to one another, and so she wanted to have her say”; and her once-beautiful, feckless mother has the makings of a Freudian field day, faking a pregnancy, for instance, when Bergljot announces her first. But there is also a shimmering vein of compassion running through Will and Testament, and an irrepressible sense of hope. Hatred cauterizes hope, but love leaves it festering. This isn’t (or isn’t only), as the book’s blurb suggestively describes it, a “down-and-dirty revenge”: it’s a tragic, terrible love story.
Hjorth’s narrator is repetitive and insistent. She drinks a lot, as do all her relatives, and the prose has the convincing feel of a drunken rant, as the sentences circle back on themselves. It’s an ugly book about an ugly subject, lit up only by the black humour of its anecdotes and the freer world of Bergljot’s dreams. Irritating as the repetition can be, it works to enclose us in the claustrophobia of the story, where Bergljot feels doomed to echo herself unheard... We aren’t recompensed for childhood suffering. Our relationships with our parents are simply there, for us to take or leave. Bergljot thinks that she chooses to separate from her parents in adulthood, but the emotional consequences are too profound for this to be true. In this unappealing but compelling book, Hjorth proves brilliant at revealing the stubborn, unredemptive quality of childhood suffering.
In many ways it’s a pity to speak about a novel as good as this one in relation to how factually true or not it may be, but in the case of Will and Testament the ensuing real-world drama is inextricably bound up in the concerns of the work, which have to do with memory and denial and shattered loyalties... The particulars of Bergljot’s experiences are revealed with immaculate restraint, earning Hjorth comparisons with Ibsen, but as she goes further into the past, that restraint transcends its beauty and becomes profoundly sad, the relationship of style to the pain it is describing growing more disturbing. The tension and reserve begin to seem not just a formal choice but a necessary way of being that has been bred in the narrator by the physiological imprint of trauma... Part of what makes this such an extraordinary book is Bergljot’s awareness of the competing pain that surrounds her, including that of the people who caused her own pain.
The novel is most concerned with psychoanalysis, and what aggression and victimhood mean to humans on a larger scale. Eventually, a public confrontation forces the family to listen to Bergljot’s story. At the end of the novel we find, in fragmented afterthoughts, a space that is not quite resolution but the ongoing life of the mind, that non-emotional side of grief that Roland Barthes said time does not heal. In a ruthless yet patiently delivered work, Hjorth does something that few writers achieve: Will and Testament is both economical and overwhelming.