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BOOK REVIEW / NOVEL : A Life Warped by the Psychological Scars of Childhood : DINA'S BOOK By Harriet Wassmo , Translated from Norwegian by Nadia M. Christensen ,Arcade Publishing, $22.95, 448 pages

August 29, 1994|CHARLOTTE INNES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

At first glance, it's hard to tell if "Dina's Book" by the Norwegian author Harriet Wassmo is brilliant or bad. What is one to make of the short paragraphs and simple declarative statements that sometimes sound like a child speaking? And the opening scene in which a woman pushes a sleigh containing her sick husband from a snow-covered cliff into the raging torrent below--isn't this a shade too much like a bad suspense film?

Yet, as one reads on, encouraged by the knowledge that Wassmo was the winner of the 1987 Nordic Council Literature Prize (like our Pulitzer Prize), one begins to see the signs of an accomplished writer--in the detailed description of what one must do to kill a man, in his startled look before he goes over the edge, in the picture of a tall woman in a man's leather trousers who rubs debris into a knife wound on her arm to make it look as if she fell from the sleigh. It soon becomes clear that "Dina's Book" is, if not brilliant, at least remarkable.

Set in mid-19th-Century rural Norway, Dina's is the powerful story of a life warped by the psychological scars of childhood trauma. Although her mental illness distorts her vision and prevents her from living the fullest possible life, Dina is strong, talented and independent--akin to other tough-minded women of 19th-Century fiction, such as the philanthropic Dorothea in George Eliot's "Middlemarch" or Edna Pontellier, who exchanges a boring marriage for sexual freedom and the life of an artist in Kate Chopin's American classic, "The Awakening."

The central event of "Dina's Book" occurs when Dina, at the age of 5, curious to understand the workings of a new machine in the family wash house, pulls a lever that tips a bucket of boiling lye over Hjertrud, her mother. Hjertrud dies horribly.

Dina's guilt is exacerbated by her father's refusal to see her. She grows up like a "wild bird" running barefoot around her father's estate--he's the sheriff--grabbing food where she can find it and sleeping in the stables with the horses. For five years she is mute.

Her life changes and her speech returns when a pastor shames her father into hiring a tutor who plays the cello. When she first hears him play, tears pour down her cheeks. "Play more!" she cries. Young Dina becomes an accomplished musician, and she discovers her gift for mathematics.

A few years later, the sheriff marries her off to Jacob Gronelv, an old friend and neighbor more than twice Dina's age. Yet 16-year-old Dina is more than a match for Jacob, who is basically a kindly man; Dina is an impulsive, willful creature, afraid of nothing and as sexually uninhibited as a young animal once Jacob introduces her to such pleasures.

Dina wears him out with her sexual demands, her midnight cello-playing and her tomboyish behavior, and he starts an affair with a widow his own age. When Jacob's leg becomes gangrenous after a fall on the ice while visiting the widow, Dina kills him.

It's clear that Dina murders out of a God-given sense of rightness, partly as if she were putting a sick animal out of its misery, but also because she believes any wrongdoing may be punishable by death.

It is the first sign that something is seriously wrong with Dina, that her mother's death warped her more deeply than anyone suggested. The apparent contradiction between mental sickness and Dina's development as a fine, strong young woman is the tension at the heart of the book.

After Jacob's death, Dina takes on an important role in the community. With her talent for figures, she runs his estate like the savviest modern businesswoman. Breaking societal rules about a woman's place, drinking, smoking cigars and wearing men's clothes, she nevertheless becomes accepted as an equal by men and she is admired by all for her principles and plain-spokenness. She also falls passionately in love.

The problem is that Dina retains the exacting, internal logic she learned at the age of 5, watching her mother die--that people cannot be forgiven. And she is haunted, literally, by the ghosts of Hjertrud and Jacob.

Dina's brief first-person comments are dotted throughout the third-person narrative, usually beginning "I am Dina," as if she needs to affirm her existence again and again in the face of Hjertrud's overpowering ghostly presence. In this context, the novel's strange, jerky style makes perfect sense. For this is the precise, concrete, simple language of Dina, the eternal child, trying to explain the world to herself.

The greatness of this book is its gut-wrenching portrait of a woman forever in the grip of her past, who learns only selfishness from her father, finds solace only in sex, certainty only in numbers, and who seems doomed to relive and repeat the events of her childhood for the rest of her days.

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