Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Stella Descending by Linn Ullman (3/5)

The back says: On a summer night, Martin draws Stella into one of the risky games that have defined their ten years together: a balancing act on the edge of their rooftop, seven storeys up. Amid the shouts of horrified onlookers, Stella stumbles, falling for a moment into Martin's arms before plummeting to her death. Did he try to save her?

This is the question that begins Linn Ullman's transfixing tale of Stella: a jealous wife, compliant mistress, treasured friend, angelic nurse, unloved daughter, devoted mother, and - finally - a woman possessed of a secret now forever lost to the living.

I say: Having read that description I was really excited about this thin little novel, but having just finished it I'm severely underwhelmed.


The novel is set up in 5 different parts, where each part consists of a short narrative from the people that were affected by Stella's fall; the onlookers, the detective, Martin, her daughter Amanda, Axel as well as Stella herself. The only person missing is Stella's youngest daughter Bee, who, we later find out, doesn't like to talk. There's also a video recording that Stella and Martin shot the night before she died.

Although Ullman has taken great care to weave the narratives into each other, so that by the time someone says something later on in the novel we can connect it to what was said before, it all feels a bit forced. I can understand why Ullman wanted to write the novel in this manner, but to me, it just gave a shattered picture of who Stella was. It was as if we were given all these fragments of her life that didn't really add up to much.

Or maybe I completely missed the point.

We don't even get to hear Stella's voice until page 149, at which point I had almost given up and was reading just for the sake of it. Which was sad because I liked being inside Stella's head. Yes, she did tie up a lot of loose ends, but more than anything she made me wish that Ullman had focused more on her instead of the others. Not just because I wanted to know what Stella thought, but because that's where Ullman's writing really shone.

When we get back to the other characters, after a mere 50 pages, I have to admit I was a bit annoyed. It was interesting finding out what Amanda thought, but most of it felt irrelevant, to be honest. Axel was also given a huge part in the story and I didn't understand why I should be interested in him. I felt the same way about the detective who was interviewing Martin - there was so much random information there. Although I do understand why she chose not to let us inside Martin's head (apart from what he told the detective), I wonder if it wasn't more because she wrote him in such a way that if we were inside his head, we'd dislike him more than we did seeing him through everyone else's eyes.

In the end I don't even care if he pushed Stella or if she jumped.

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