Vivian — Christina Hesselholdt

Another read for women in translation month.

Translated from Dutch, Vivian is a fictionalised account of the life of American photographer Vivian Maier. I find there is something so inherently joyful about this sub-genre of fiction — that an author is so fascinated by someone relatively unknown that they turn their life into a novel. In that respect, this brought to mind Flush, Virginia Woolf’s biography of Elizabeth Barret Browning’s cocker spaniel; another slightly unusual but brilliant read.

Vivian’s story as told by Hesselholdt is very dark; her childhood marked by trauma and a turbulent family life. She works as a nanny and never tries to make photography a profession, though she is taking photos constantly. Wary of other people and their motivations, she has no close relationships beyond her (dysfunctional) family and dies alone, poor and unknown.

So far, so bleak — yet it wasn’t a depressing read. I loved the fragmentary form: short segments in the first person that are presented almost as a script, with Hesselholdt indicating the switch from character to character. And it’s this approach, which gets you right inside the characters’ heads, that makes the novel peculiar, riveting and, thanks to Hesselholdt’s comic gift, wonderfully funny.

I’d recommend Vivian for fellow fans of dark humour and the somewhat unusual. (My particular frame of reference being that I enjoyed this for the same reasons I love Hilary Mantel and Olga Tokarczuk while finding fellow Dutch literary sensation Marieke Lucas Rijneveld’s Booker International winner The Discomfort of Evening too disturbing.)

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