Named in the New York Times Book Review’s 100 Notable Books of 2014!
Ullmann’s characters are complex and paradoxical: neither fully guilty nor fully innocent
Siri Brodal, a chef and restaurant owner, is married to Jon Dreyer, a famous novelist plagued by writer’s block. Siri and Jon have two daughters, and together they spend their summers on the coast of Norway, in a mansion belonging to Jenny Brodal, Siri’s stylish and unforgiving mother.
Siri and Jon’s marriage is loving but difficult, and troubled by painful secrets. They have a strained relationship with their elder daughter, Alma, who struggles to find her place in the family constellation. When Milla is hired as a nanny to allow Siri to work her long hours at the restaurant and Jon to supposedly meet the deadline on his book, life in the idyllic summer community takes a dire turn. One rainy July night, Milla disappears without a trace. After her remains are discovered and a suspect is identified, everyone who had any connection with her feels implicated in her tragedy and haunted by what they could have done to prevent it.
The Cold Song is a story about telling stories and about how life is continually invented and reinvented.
The discovery of a corpse, presumed to be a murder victim, comes very early in this involving fifth novel from Ullmann (Before You Sleep). But it serves mostly as a basis for the author's subtle and menacing look at family dynamics. The story proceeds through flashbacks to those who were connected with the victim, a 19-year-old nanny named Milla. The prose is almost clinically cool, and the reader observes as three young boys digging for buried treasure find the body, then as an extended cast of characters react to the news of Milla's death. Milla worked as a nanny for young Alma and Liv, daughters of restaurateur Siri Brodal and her novelist husband Jon Dreyer, who are both struggling in their careers and their marriage. The family is spending the summer with Siri's mother, Jenny, an imperious woman closing in on 75, in her huge, elegant house by the sea in rural Norway. As a role model for Alma and a constant irritant to Siri, Milla upsets further the already-delicate family dynamics. Ullmann teeters between dark comedy of manners and genuine psychological thriller, but she consistently captures the telling moments in everyday encounters, and writes seductively complex characters.