An elderly woman walking along a snowy street wearing only a nightgown and slippers. A woman feeling a rush of blood through her veins on hearing a noise in a supposedly empty room upstairs. A mother staggering after being struck in the face by her son. A wife imploring her husband to rein in his caustic comments. Another wife cycling away from her husband, surprised at seeing spring in bloom and happy "in a rather bitter sort of way" about being uncontactable.
Ida Jessen's stories are full of such striking images. They are also driven by women who find themselves floundering outside their comfort zones, largely because of the behavior of feckless, ungrateful, overbearing or downright violent men. Jessen is regarded as an expert practitioner of psychological realism in her native Denmark, and the stories that make up "A Postcard for Annie" showcase this talent through their shrewd depictions of women wrestling with conundrums, torments and upheavals.
In the title tale, a young woman called Mie witnesses an accident while on the way to her study group. Sensing her shock, a male bystander takes her for a coffee to calm her nerves. It isn't long, however, before Mie realizes this stranger is no good Samaritan. "An Argument" centers upon Tine, a translator, and her fraught relationship with her tetchy, fault-finding husband, Simon. Tine's attempts to placate him, and arouse him, lead to acrimonious rows which leave her the weaker party: "The dependency that constrains her feels like it's stuck in her throat, as if she were choking on things unsaid."
The shortest story in the collection is little more than a scanty sketch. Fortunately, there are three longer pieces here, each of them weighing in at around 50 pages. All turn out to be Jessen's strongest work. "An Excursion" follows Tove in her small coastal town as she burns off anger toward her husband, a man who "loved ceramics and cookery, and perhaps even her." When an encounter with a handsome stranger at a harbor restaurant goes sour, she begins to wonder what it is that gives her hope and makes her feel alive.
The other two tales balance brutality with poignancy. In "December Is a Cruel Month" we hear of harsh blows delivered in hazy circumstances. Rather than give easy answers, Jessen makes her readers work through a web of rumor and suspicion to form their own conclusion to the version of events. And in "Mother and Son," Jessen introduces "a fatigued family, familiar with misfortune," then homes in on "mommy-machine" Lisbet and her struggle to bond with her wayward son.
Whether they are facing predicaments, making difficult emotional choices or just watching their lives unravel, Jessen's heroines earn our sympathy. Martin Aitken's surefooted translation conveys their plight and allows us to grasp Jessen's astute observations and appreciate her beguiling prose. This collection is the work of a skillful storyteller.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Wall Street Journal. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
A Postcard for Annie
By: Ida Jessen, translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken.
Publisher: Archipelago, 208 pages, $18.