Linn Ullmann translated from the Norwegian by Barbara J. Haveland

The Cold Song

Publication Date: Apr 08, 2014

336 pp

Trade Paperback

List Price US $15.95
Trim Size (H x W): 5.5 x 8.25
ISBN: 9781590516676


List Price US $15.95
ISBN: 9781590516683

One of the New York Times Book Review’s 100 Notable Books of 2014!

From the internationally best-selling author Linn Ullmann, hailed as a “an elegant stylist with an original voice” (New York Times Book Review) comes this taut, brilliantly acute novel of a family who when faced with tragedy must confront their guilt, their longings, and their losses.

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.

In this novel about life and love, rendered like a thriller, Ullmann captures a constellation of characters as complex as they are paradoxical—neither fully guilty nor fully innocent.

Excerpt from The Cold Song

But something was wrong. Siri held her breath. It had to do with Milla. Or something else. But Milla definitely had something to do with it. Her presence here at Mailund. The slightly lumpish body, the long dark hair (long dark hairs on the kitchen counter, in the bathroom sink, between the sofa and the sofa cushions, on the base-boards and doorframes), her face, sometimes pretty, sometimes not,
beseeching eyes.

More and more Siri found herself having to concentrate in order to keep herself in check—was that the expression? Keep oneself in check? Be one. One body, one voice, one mouth, one thread, and not fall apart, dissolve, collapse in a heap.

“Your main responsibility,” Siri said, “will be to look after Liv for five hours or so every day. But we’d be grateful if you’d keep an eye on Alma as well. Alma’s twelve. She’s”—Siri searched for the right word —“a bit of a loner.”

Milla laughed hesitantly, brushed the hair back from her pretty moon face and said that she thought it all sounded really great.

It was a mild, bright day in May and Siri had invited Milla to the house in Oslo. The idea was for them to get to know each other a little better before the summer. Alma was at school, Liv was at nursery school,
and Jon had gone for a long walk with Leopold. Something about a chapter he was having trouble writing.

Milla had replied to the ad on the Internet for a summer job and Siri had been taken with her application. In her e-mail she came across as a happy, friendly, reliable girl. It would be fantastic to get to know all of you and be able to be part of your family this summer. If I get the job I’ll do my best to be a good “big sister” to your daughters so that you and your husband won’t have to worry when you’re at work.

New York Times Book Review Notable Book of 2014

“Ullmann’s voice on the page is a lean, tough-minded thing, scrubbed and scoured of sentimentality straight through to the final, Carveresque pages, in which she pulls off an 11th- hour radiance, a tonal shift from minor to major key. The novel’s charm lies in these idiosyncratic glints, these glimmers of queer wit, uncensored scorn or sudden, unstinting sympathy.” —New York Times Book Review

“Ullmann is very good at evoking the peculiar, charged stasis of a household in which mentally active and intellectually vital people are resolutely failing to communicate with each other—the loneliness of communality, in short. She is a very exact writer, who is unsparing of her characters: a tonic, sharp, lyrical, intelligent novelist who deserves to be better-known in English.” —The New Yorker Page-Turner Blog

“Ullmann’s rural Norway is an unfussy place, eloquent for its starkness, much like the spare language she paints it with. Her stage is less about physical place than mood and one’s place in the familial symmetry. While much happens in this novel, the events feel secondary. The prose is taut, yet the pace is languid as summer in that before-the-storm tension…The real achievement of this novel is Ullmann’s gift to imbue the tension of a thriller via the unease of the mundane…Yes, a murder occurs, but The Cold Song is more a mystery in the way most families tend to be mysteries unto themselves.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune

Disturbingly tangled and riveting Norwegian fiction…Linn Ullmann’s The Cold Song reads like a cross between a psychological thriller and a grim fairy tale, the kind that takes place in a big house haunted by angry parents, lonely children and secrets ranging from the ordinary to the catastrophic.” —More 

“[A] dark, lyrical novel with a firecracker of a beginning…Ullmann…is a forceful, exquisite talent.” —

“The fifth novel by an award-winning Norwegian author and critic deserves to win her a much larger stateside readership.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Intriguing…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.” —Publishers Weekly

“Ullmann deftly slips beneath the skin of her characters, depicting their wounds and worries in subtle gradations of tone and texture. The Cold Song remains a captivating, hybrid book.” —

“A deeply moving story of troubled relationships and unsettled memories.” —

The Cold Song doesn’t so much unfold as it revolves, around the sudden disappearance of Milla, the young and beautiful summer nanny hired to take care of Siri and Jon’s two children. The real ‘meat’ of the novel rests in its keen and unflinching exposure of the inner lives of its characters, revealed in brief spurts of narrative that shift back and forth in time. The result is riveting.” —Bookpage 

“In her latest heart-stopper, internationally bestselling author Ullmann, (who lives in Oslo), combines a mysterious murder with a razor-sharp eye for family relationships.” —Reader’s Digest

“In The Cold Song, Linn Ullmann explores the events surrounding a young woman’s murder in brief, haunting flashes that imbue the intimacies and betrayals of family life with the brooding magic of a Grimm’s fairy tale. This delicate, mesmerizing work attests to Ullmann’s vast storytelling powers.” —Jennifer Egan, winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award

The Cold Song is a wonderful book, like a family album made by a photographer who really cares for his subjects….The book has the light but also the weight of a Bergman film. It doesn’t offer easy solutions but still has a kind of healing power.”  —Peter Stamm, finalist for the Man Booker International Prize 2013 and author of We’re Flying and Seven Years

The Cold Song recounts the unfolding of a large tragedy that has already happened—the mysterious disappearance of Milla, an adolescent girl—while also showing the smaller tragedy of a faltering marriage. Combining the tension of a whodunit with the subtlety of a domestic drama, Ullmann’s riveting novel is measured, impeccably observed, and utterly chilling.” —Rebecca Mead, author of My Life in Middlemarch

“Elegant and incisive, The Cold Song exposes a complex family drama that revolves around the day a beautiful young woman goes missing….This novel is a startling meditation on loss, how we deal with it, how it echoes through generations, and how our mistakes cause us to lose the ones we love.” —Jenny Patiño Cervantes, City Lit Books, Chicago, IL

The Cold Song is a fluid, shape-shifting novel, a family saga that turns into an erotically charged drama and then takes a darker turn into the terrain of a murder mystery. Linn Ullmann is an unusually talented and sympathetic writer, able to inhabit a wide range of characters and bring them all vividly to life.” —Tom Perrotta, author of Nine Inches: Stories and The Leftovers

“Contrary to popular belief, a death is not merely an end but the beginning of a story. The death in The Cold Song opens a Pandora’s box of human emotions, conflicts and deceptions. Readers of this novel will be reminded of the joys and complexities of living. Memories, laughter, gestures, trivialities—everything casts a shadow, and nothing leaves us safe. Linn Ullmann has mastered the art of seeing into the dark mysteries that make us who we are.” —Yiyun Li, award-winning author of The Vagrants and Kinder Than Solitude

“Linn Ullmann’s The Cold Song is a haunting novel about all the ways we endeavor to love and be loved, and the many mistakes we can make while trying. It’s suspenseful and beautifully written and so absorbing that I could not put it down. When I finished reading it, I remained in a state of awe.” —Vendela Vida, author of The Lovers and Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name

“[The Cold Song is] a psychological tour de force—not a beat wrong. The ending crept up on me, so quiet and unexpected. It’s a brilliant scene, with everybody locked in character—in the huit clos finality of character—and it hits you the minute you put the book down. I stayed up half last night finishing it, and now I’m sitting bleary-eyed at my desk, paying for the pleasure.” —Jane Kramer, author of Europeans and The Politics of Memory

The Cold Song is a superb psychological mystery and a must for anyone who enjoys the genre. The writing is excellent. The switches between the time of the murder, the discovery of the body, and subsequent developments are many, but they fit together seamlessly. Highly recommended.” —John A. Broussard, I Love A Mystery

1. The Cold Song takes its name from the eponymous aria in Henry Purcell’s opera King Arthur.  Jon Dreyer, plagued by writer’s block, listens repeatedly to the late Klaus Nomi’s rendition of “The Cold Song.”  What role does wasted talent play in The Cold Song?

2. Why does Milla’s mother send Jon text messages about Milla’s death instead of confronting him directly? What other instances of indirect confrontation do you find in The Cold Song, and why do you think they occur?

3. Examine K.B.’s role in the novel. Why does he remain a minor character, even though his actions spark the central conflict of the story? What other important characters/conflicts arise and then fade into the periphery of the narrative?

4. Jon Dreyer writes to-do lists, e-mails, and text messages in his study, but rarely chapters of his novel.  What role do different forms of storytelling play in The Cold Song? How do the stories Siri, Jon, and Jenny tell themselves and each other differ from reality?

5. Alma and Milla share a special relationship. Why doesn’t Alma mention that she’d seen Milla in the woods on the night of her murder?

6. Siri tries to maintain an appearance of calm, despite the chaos she experiences all around her. Why are appearances so important to her? Why does Siri insist on throwing the party for her mother when Jenny doesn’t want one at all? Consider their relationship and her mother’s anger. In what other ways does Jenny “divide” herself (p. 70)? How does this habit influence her other relationships?

7. From the outset of the novel, Siri feels uncomfortable around Milla.  Jon feels uncomfortable around his daughter, Alma, and at one point even expresses the worry that his daughter does not understand him.  How does Siri’s unease differ from Jon’s?

8. Many characters in the novel are denied a sense of resolution or closure—Jon never completes his novel, Jenny never successfully defeats her alcoholism, and Siri never resolves her uncertain relationship with Milla. At the end of the novel, Amanda tells Siri and Jon, “We can’t move on.” Does the final scene promise resolution for Milla’s parents, or do you think that closure is impossible?

9. The mother-daughter bonds in The Cold Song are tense and riven with secret wounds and grievances.  Jenny and Siri, Siri and Alma, even Milla and Amanda have troubled relationships. What significance do these relationships hold for you?

10. Throughout the novel, Milla is depicted from the perspective of many different characters—Simen, Siri, Jon, her parents, etc.—and yet readers rarely gain access into her own mind. She is remembered through photographs, newspaper articles, and other frozen images created by others. In what ways is Milla objectified, viewed as a spectacle more than an autonomous human being? Why is this important?