Book review: Berlin Poplars
Christine Foster Meloni
What an extraordinary trio of brothers one finds in this captivating novel by celebrated Norwegian writer Anne Ragde! Three more dissimilar siblings could scarcely be imagined. Each of the first three chapters introduces one of these brothers. These detailed descriptions set the stage for a family that has never been a real family.
Margido, the middle brother, is a devout Christian, somber and humorless. He is the director of a funeral home in Trondheim and we follow him in the opening chapter as he prepares a service for an adolescent boy who has committed suicide. We observe his formal but sensitive interaction with the family of the deceased. Beyond his work environment, however, he has little contact with others.
Erlend, the youngest brother, has a joie de vivre that contrasts sharply with Margido’s stiffness. He did not find Norway much to his liking, so he left for Copenhagen when a young adult and flourished there. A very talented and successful window dresser, he is especially busy at Christmas time as he is in great demand to decorate department store windows in grand style for the holidays. He is gay and has a partner whom he adores and affectionately calls Crumb. He rarely thinks about his family back in Norway.
The oldest brother Tor has never left Neshov, the family farm, and lives there with his parents. He is very attached to his mother but can barely tolerate his father. He has always worked hard to eke out a living and seems to prefer the company of animals to that of humans. He is currently breeding pigs after many years of raising cows.
Torunn is then introduced. She is the daughter of Tor but not everyone knows of her existence. She was born out of wedlock and taken away by her mother who soon abandoned her to her own mother.
Suddenly Anna Neshov, the mother of the three brothers, has a stroke and is hospitalized. Tor is distraught and notifies his two brothers and decides, for some reason, to contact Torunn after many years of silence.
Torunn is not really sure why she agrees to go, but she plans to stay for a short visit and then return to her usual life in Oslo. Erlend is of the same opinion—the quicker he can return to Copenhagen, the better. Although everyone is certain that Anna’s condition is not serious, she unexpectedly dies. The two brothers and Torunn agree to stay on and work together with Tor to settle pressing family affairs.
No one is pleased about hanging around the farm. The atmosphere is fraught with tension and exasperation. Like the Berlin poplars planted in this area by the Germans during their occupation of Norway in World War II (which give the novel its title), Margido, Erlend, and Torunn find themselves in alien soil but with surprisingly deep roots there, nevertheless.
Anna’s death gives the members of this dysfunctional family the opportunity to get to know each other better and, in the process, to discover some very shocking family secrets that have long been hidden.
Ragde has written a brilliant novel with a multi-layered plot and a fascinating cast of characters. Berlin Poplars was awarded the prestigious Riksmål Prize in 2004 and has been translated into 21 languages.
Ragde, Anne B. (2009). Berlin Poplars. Vintage Books, London (Trans James Anderson, Berlinerpopelene).
Christine Foster Meloni is professor emerita at The George Washington University. She has degrees in Italian literature, linguistics, and international education. She was born in Minneapolis and currently lives in Washington, DC. She values her Norwegian heritage.
This article originally appeared in the April 29, 2016, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.