The Gradual Disappearance of Jane Ashland Casts an Unlikely Spell

Nicolai Houm’s third novel unspools the mystery of a writer who abandons fiction and winds up alone on the top of a mountain in Norway.

The title of this slim book sounds like a virtuosic magic act, and the Norwegian writer Nicolai Houm delivers. In the first of his three novels to appear in English, his legerdemain is remarkable. He builds suspense even as he splinters his plot into nonlinear fragments. He conjures up the emotional arc of a female life—from childhood loneliness through intense love to midlife derailment—in just 226 undersized pages. Most unexpected of all, he deepens a tale of grief with a caustic comic tone.

The recent trauma that has devastated Houm’s protagonist, Jane Ashland, remains a mystery until the novel is almost over. But her mordant sensibility is clear as the book opens: Formerly a novelist who taught creative writing at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, she is now in the foggy, icy recesses of a Norwegian national park, evidently on the brink of death. She thinks about striking a “dramatic pose”—as if reaching for something—well aware that the rescuers who come upon her won’t appreciate it. They’ll just cram her corpse, with its “theatrical gesture,” into a bag.

In brief yet riveting scenes from the near and distant past, Houm lets readers piece together why Ashland has abandoned fiction and traveled to Norway, and how she ends up in the wild with a 40-something scientist (about whom she observes, “He aroused the same emotions as the countless jocks in her past. She wanted to bite his arm”). Once upon a time, she was able to put into words what drove her writing—the need, as she told an interviewer, to deal with “how we always long to become something more than just one being, more than a solitary brain inside an isolated organism.” Casting an unlikely spell, Houm conveys not just the tenacity but the tragedy of that longing.

This article appears in the October 2018 print edition with the headline “Cover to Cover: The Gradual Disappearance of Jane Ashland.”