One of Us Is Sleeping by Josefine Klougart
Rochester, NY. Open Letter. 2016. 260 pages.
If one of us is sleeping, is the other one awake? Might Danish author Josefine Klougart’s English-language debut be a luminous waking dream? The cryptic title—perhaps a metaphor signaling missed opportunities—is as pensive as the rest of this slim volume, a prizewinning best-seller in Denmark.
N. J. Furl’s stark cover effectively captures the novel’s austere plot: A woman returns home to her dying mother, prompting memories of two former relationships (one long-term, one brief and intense). The nameless narrator paints her grief into a poetic portrait. And therein lies Klougart’s genius. She renders the emotional landscape in impressionistic soft focus. The speaker’s voice arrests because it conveys more than setting, plot, or character development—it transmits powerful feelings.
The storyteller scatters fuzzy life details along a veering chronological path, granting the reader only a hazy glimpse. Cooped up in her childhood home, she watches snowflakes accumulate along window ledges, notes “gutters drooping like tired eyelids.” Swirling like white flecks in a glass snow globe, her thoughts combine recollections with current events.
She examines three generations—grandmother, mother, daughter. Images of two sisters recur. The speaker’s torment about what might have been centers on her lost loves but is grounded in long-ago family interactions. Is the vague reverie fictional reality or nocturnal delusion? Contemplation or illusion? Idle hope or mirage?
She ponders “home” relentlessly. Does it even exist? Will one always belong? What is homesickness? When someone returns, can home ever be the same? Eventually, is an estate anything more than memories? To whom do you tell them? What if the other person sleeps? What if you doze?
As the protagonist decreates herself, she regenerates another. All the while Klougart, her creator, offers inspired homage to the foremothers of the book’s themes. Consider Simone Weil writing in Gravity and Grace: “We must be rooted in the absence of a place.” Or Virginia Woolf in To the Lighthouse: “when one woke at all, one’s relations changed.” And particularly Anne Carson in Decreation: “Lo how before a great snow, before the gliding emptiness of the night coming on us, our lanterns throw shapes of old companions and a cold pause after.”
There in Denmark, snow falls. One of Us Is Sleeping is brilliant. Excellently translated by Martin Aitken, it’s the first of Klougart’s four novels to appear in English. Look for the next, On Darkness, from Deep Vellum in 2017. (Editorial note: WLT will feature an excerpt from On Darkness in its January 2017 issue.)
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