Book review: Without Direction
Author Roy Johannesen published Without Direction, his first novel, in 2012 at age 70. Johannesen, whose father was Norwegian, was born in Brooklyn. Retired from a professional career in healthcare, he is a teacher and practitioner of respiratory care. That expertise, his familiarity with sailing, his sense of humor, and his travels in Norway contribute to the authenticity and enjoyment of this work of fiction. He lives with his wife, Gloria, in Charlottesville, Virginia.
“I saw Linda running into the sea… Emma was beating at the water, and her head was going under… I could see that Linda was going to help her…I tore straight down—through the brush—as fast as I could… There was no one in sight… I rushed into the water… I dove again and again… I should have stayed out there until I found them or drowned.”
~Daniel Nordal, page 26
Daniel Nordal, a carpenter, is the sole resident and caretaker of a pristine island off the southern coast of Norway, near Lillesand, the town in which he grew up. While living in New York, Daniel married Linda, and the couple frequently vacationed on the beloved island with their daughter Emma. In summer 1994, Emma and Linda drowned in the waters off their favorite cove. Daniel’s life fell apart.
Like a sailor who has lost his North Star, Daniel is a man “without direction.” The author, Roy Johannesen, explores with his readers the mind and actions of a grieving man who feels he has lost everything.
We readers meet Daniel more than a year (perhaps almost two) after these events, guilt-ridden, still haunted by Linda’s and Emma’s deaths. He roughs it in a cabin on the island to be close to where he lost them. Sometimes he imagines Linda’s presence, thinks he hears her voice.
But Daniel’s not a total recluse. He has a few close friends. He rows his boat from the island to Lillesand, using his inhaler once. He enjoys a brief exchange on the beach with Eric, an old sailor, about why he rows a boat with a motor on it. [You, reader, will learn why.] He drops in at Knudsen’s Bakery for his regular mug of coffee and a raisin roll (from which he systematically extracts the raisins). His good friend Ingrid, whom he regards as “one of the best boat builders in southern Norway,” arrives and voices her concern about the safety of his boat. She also delivers a message that an American stranger wishes to meet him at the Hotel Norge. Daniel finds the man, Birk, the previously unknown son of the island’s absentee owner and Daniel’s employer. Birk tells him he intends to develop the island. And he wants Daniel off of it.
Solveig, a mutual childhood friend of his and Ingrid’s persuades Daniel to leave the island temporarily and use his carpentry skills to prepare the furnishings of the souvenir shop she plans to open on another island in the Lyngør sound. While “his” island may be out of Daniel’s sight, it and Birk are in his thoughts.
He vows not to go from—or let go of—the island without a fight. His belief in Norway’s laws that protect private land ownership informs readers and temporarily gives him hope that Birk’s plans are illegal. But he also has a few tricks up his sleeve. He visits the island where he clashes with Birk.
Daniel likes to walk and think. Too often that thinking is flawed. Headstrong, he over-estimates his abilities, or forgets his inhaler. Given his knowledge of what the sea can do, he seems downright foolhardy, leading to dangerous results. [At times, dear reader, you may find his decisions incredible, but keep in mind this man isn’t just fighting for an island but perhaps for his own sanity.]
At Solveig’s, Daniel meets her friend Tom and his daughter Sarah (age 10—Emma’s age when she drowned). There’s an almost immediate bond between Daniel and Sarah, who thinks he’s “cool,” and Ingrid. Together they teach Sarah how to sail on Ingrid’s sloop to Daniel’s island. While both Solveig and Ingrid understand Daniel’s attachment to the island, they apparently have long recognized that it keeps him from moving forward.
Saddled with grief but also fear and low self-esteem, Daniel doesn’t seem to see how deeply Ingrid cares for him. Sex doesn’t enter his thoughts [at least not any that he shares with us readers]. Yet there is a brief awakening, with Ingrid.
That encounter, which he regards as ending badly, and his growing father-like affection for young Sarah, nudge Daniel’s introspection and eventual transformation.
Johannesen’s brilliant insertion of Daniel’s gift of a compass to young Sarah begins to point the way to new directions for her and for him, though not before dramatic disasters occur.
All in all, Without Direction is an absorbing, sometimes frustrating, entertaining read!
Carla Danziger, a retired writer/editor for nonprofits, is the author of Hidden Falls, a mystery/romantic suspense novel set in Bergen and the Sognefjord. A frequent traveler, she divides her time between McLean, Va., and Albany, Calif.
This article originally appeared in the July 29, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.