My thanks to Archipelago/Steerforth Press for a review copy of this book via Edelweiss.
Ti Amo (2022) is a raw, honest, beautiful, heart-breaking, autobiographical account of a woman whose husband is suffering terminal cancer. Written originally in Norwegian by author Hanne Ørstavik, the version I read is translated brilliantly by Martin Aitken.
In Ti Amo, our unnamed narrator is a Norwegian novelist, living in Milan with her husband, the publisher of the Italian version of her books, whom she met and fell in love with on a trip there some years earlier. Now, in just their fourth year together, he is dying, with pancreatic cancer, undergoing chemo and treatments, but only so as to make him comfortable. The narrator and her husband attempt to live some semblance of a ‘normal’ life, him still attending office when he can; her going on her travels to attend bookfairs now and then; yet their life is defined by the regular hospital visits, the constant, often excruciating pain which her husband must bear, and which most times she can do nothing about since access to morphine is difficult, as well as her own struggles trying to write for that is the only way she can cope—in this case, not writing one of her usual novels (which she is unable to do under the circumstances), but this account, of what she is going through. At one point she writes:
The novel is the life I live on the inside and it fetches things up from different times and separate layers that I often don’t realise need to meet … the novel possesses an insight so much deeper than my own, and because it’s in touch with this very life force itself, it knows so much better than I do where the wave of each new novel is going to take me.
Written in a sense as a letter to her husband, the account moves back and forth between past and present, her first meeting with him and falling in love, the initial bouts of illness that didn’t seem to have a cause, the realisation of what it really was, and then the present where she must live every minute knowing that he is slipping away; the feeling sometimes overwhelming her, at others leaving her simply numb.
And for a long time just looking at you was painful to me, I couldn’t look at you without the knowledge that you’re going to die, your eyes, everything about you said death to me. And even though it’s not that acute anymore, it still won’t pass, now it’s quieter in a way, normal almost, death has become an attendant presence, everything’s just the way it is, I’m here with you and soon you won’t be there anymore.
While there is much and deep love between the two, there is much also left unsaid, particularly the truth that must be faced that he is dying; she wishes to talk about it, and it seems that he doesn’t leaving her she unsure what he is really feeling or going through.
Ørstavik’s account is deeply felt and harrowing, and Aitken’s wonderful translation gets the reader to experience every emotion and thought with her. The pain, struggle, the knowledge that someone you love won’t be with you any longer, but having still to live some version of normalcy; amid all this her real self too gets somewhat lost, absorbed by it all. This isn’t a long read (just little over a hundred pages in the version I have/below 100 in others), but it is a hard and emotional one—I look 3 days to read it.
A poignant and beautiful book, but one I’d recommend reading when one’s in the mind for it.