Literary Saloon
Site of Review.

Trying to meet all your book preview and review needs.

the Best
the Rest
Review Index




to e-mail us:

support the site

In Association with Amazon.com

In association with Amazon.com - UK

In association with Amazon.ca - Canada

the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Lobster Life

Erik Fosnes Hansen

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Lobster Life

Title: Lobster Life
Author: Erik Fosnes Hansen
Genre: Novel
Written: 2016 (Eng. 2019)
Length: 388 pages
Original in: Norwegian
Availability: Lobster Life - US
Lobster Life - UK
Lobster Life - Canada
Une vie de homard - France
Ein Hummerleben - Deutschland
  • Norwegian title: Et hummerliv
  • Translated and with an Afterword by Janet Garton

- Return to top of the page -

Our Assessment:

B : enjoyable hotel-in-decline novel, with quite a bit more to it

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Süddeutsche Zeitung . 27/9/2019 Christian Mayer

  From the Reviews:
  • "Hansen ist ein warmherziger Erzähler mit einem Faible für Eigenbrötler. (...) Nicht alles gelingt dem Autor so leicht wie die Hotelsaga. In den Nebensträngen der Erzählung wirkt Hansen manchmal etwas fahrig. Die Figur der selbstbewussten Karoline, die mit ihren Eltern bei den Zacchariassens absteigt und den etwas älteren Sedd gerne zum Freund hätte, bleibt schemenhaft. (...) Manchmal schimmert durch diese Verästelungen ein wenig von John Irvings Bestseller Das Hotel New Hampshire durch" - Christian Mayer, Süddeutsche Zeitung
  • "(A) very funny and clever book indeed. In Stoppardian terms, On the Razzle meets Arcadia. It is set in a decaying Grand Hotel and written in a gloriously off-beat style delighting in absurdity." - Sue Prideaux, New Statesman (11/11/2020)

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

- Return to top of the page -

The complete review's Review:

       Lobster Life is narrated by Sedgewick -- called Sedd -- Kumar, a boy in his early teens who lives in the venerable 132-room Norwegian Fåvnesheim Mountain Hotel owned and run by his grandparents. He knows little about his parents, beyond that his father, who died before he was born, was a doctor originally from India; he doesn't even know whether his mother is still alive, as she disappeared when he was very young, and nothing has been heard from her since. Still, he seems to have enjoyed a happy childhood in this small, tight-knit family that also includes the hotel's chef (and all around handy-man) Jim.
       Sedd mentions several times that this is a 'Memoir', even as the narrative is mostly a straightforward account of events over the course of a year or so, without it being made obvious that it is being written retrospectively; only rarely does Sedd make readers aware that these events lie in the past -- though he does point out, early on: "I only have a few photos from the year I want to wrote about, and no diaries to draw on at all". Though apparently drawn largely from memory, his reconstruction is detailed and feels very in the moment in its presentation (including in the voice, very much that of a young (if articulate) teen).
       Elsewhere, Sedd also reflects on his undertaking, noting:

     If, like me, you have decided to write your Memoirs, it is important that you have something to remember. Many people who write their Memoirs have not understood this. When you write your Memoirs you have to think of the reader. The reader, after all, doesn't know what is important and unimportant, which are the vital things and which are simply supplementary information. The small things which occurred, and which occurred unnoticed in a sea of everyday events, may have been just as important as the large and visible events.
       Lobster Life is a novel full of the small, everyday -- the seemingly incidental. Hansen heightens this sense further through his narrator, as Sedd's capability of apprehension is typically teen: much that is obvious, and significant, escapes him (or at least seems to). A young girl, Karoline, who comes to live in the local town but first spends a few weeks with her family in the hotel and develops a crush on him, frequently repeats the same refrain when she is with him: "You're so slow", and that does sum him up quite well. It's not so much that he is hesitant -- indeed, when action is called for, he generally jumps right in -- but he can often be, willfully or not, slow on the uptake. So, much of the narrative includes the small things that don't seem to be particularly important, and of course these turn out to often be important (as is often more immediately obvious to the reader that Sedd -- Hansen is not exactly subtle with quite a bit of this).
       Among the things that Sedd long remains blissfully oblivious to is that things are not going well at the hotel. It's the early 1980s, and the glory years of the hotel are long behind it, tourists now preferring to travel: "to the South, the infernal South", as grandfather Zacchariassen complains. As Sedd's grandfather admits:
It's not like it was in the fifties and sixties, when I took over from my father. At that time this was the ultimate luxury. People streamed here in flocks
       And while even Sedd realizes that business is down, he remains shielded from and oblivious to the actual state of affairs: that the hotel's finances, and its prospects, are dire. Even as his grandparents try to keep up the past -- not least Sedd's Austrian grandmother, steeped in her own Habsburg fantasy -- the sense of inevitable decline is impossible to keep at bay.
       Not just decline but death hangs over the novel -- from its opening scene, in which the local banker dies at dinner at the hotel, to the almost too symbolically-laden undertakers' convention hosted at the hotel in one last desperate attempt to revive its fortunes in the (in every way literally) closing chapters of the story.
       When Herr Berge, the banker, keels over at dinner at the beginning of the novel, Sedd admirably tries to perform CPR on him; unfortunately, the banker can't be saved. It's a tough life lesson, with a variety of consequences. As Zacchariassen comes to tell Sedd: "A bank manager is always important", and the long-established relationship with Berge was important for the hotel. He was part of the small local community -- which also meant, more understanding of the importance of the hotel as part of what made the town -- and of course the concern is that a new outsider won't be nearly as understanding. (Given the hotel's balance-sheet, it's hard to imagine anyone could have been understanding much longer, but still .....) But also as a consequence of the banker's death, Sedd picks up a new hobby, photography, as his widow gives the boy the banker's Leica. (Still, Sedd warned readers early on that he has only a few photographs from this fateful year ....)
       The new banker and his family -- including daughter Karoline -- come to stay at the hotel while their house is being finished, allowing Zacchariassen to give the new money-man a sense of the establishment. That Karoline takes to Sedd, and that Sedd is helpful in entertaining her, doesn't hurt either: connections are everything, and Zacchariassen isn't above using the children's friendship to try to make Karoline's father more sympathetic to his situation.
       The signs of money-trouble and decline are apparent at practically every turn -- even if Sedd prefers not to register many of them as such. He has faith in his grandfather, and sees no reason why things shouldn't work out; even the slightly younger Karoline knows better ..... Unfortunate events beyond their control don't help, such as the (historic) 1982 strike of the Norwegian Wine and Spirits Monopoly (Vinmonopolet), which left the hotel dry for weeks, as they couldn't purchase the alcohol their guests -- especially at remunerative wedding parties -- demand, leading to a whole set of cancelations. (They could have stocked up on booze beforehand -- the strike was expected -- but didn't because there wasn't enough cash on hand .....)
       Throughout, the mystery of his 'provenance' and his parents also weighs on Sedd. His grandparents don't exactly expound on the subject, and he long struggles with how to learn more. He does sniff around some in the hotel for some clues -- and among the tantalizing mysteries he encounters is that locked room in the hotel's old, no longer in use wing. He calls the room 'Olympus', and try as he might, he can't gain entry to it. He imagines -- correctly, as it turns out -- that a great deal would be revealed behind that door, but it takes until the end for him to finally learn, for better and worse (seriously: way, way worse), what secrets the room holds. Before then, he at least does learn a bit more about his father and this Dr.Kumar's relationship with his mother -- filled in by the local doctor who is surprised that Sedd's grandparents had never told him any of this.
       (The ethnically-mixed Sedd certainly stands out in blond-dominated Norway, but as with everything else seems to be (or chooses to be) oblivious to his difference; occasionally comments or actions by others make clear that they see him as other, but his family and the hotel community never leave him feeling in any way apart. Much of the activity at the hotel is about keeping up appearances and playing roles, and while, for example, Sedd's relationship with Karoline is complicated by the rule that staff aren't supposed to fraternize with the guests, overall this seems to serve him well, allowing him always to feel secure, in his place at the hotel and in hotel-life.)
       Much of Lobster Life is simply an entertaining hotel-novel, as Sedd describes various goings-on and guests. Along the way, there is also much that Sedd chooses not to see, or not to try to interpret; he's learnt from his grandparents, who have so little to say on the matter of his parents: denial goes a long way:
     What counts is not to talk about it. I understand that now. What counts is not to talk about it, because then it doesn't count. What doesn't count doesn't matter.
       Of course, denial only holds up to the breaking point -- and, whoo, boy does everything go south when that shattering comes. Karoline repeatedly tries to prod Sedd to action -- not least in one very childish plan to solve the hotel's money-problems -- but he takes after his grandfather more than he might know. And even if he grabs the bull by the horns -- well, we saw in the first scene, admirable as his efforts were, he couldn't save the doomed banker and, as it turns out, there's a lot more he can't save. (A nice little bit of the conclusion does, however, have him literally save much of what matters to him -- only objects, but still .....)
       Considering the memoir-form again, Sedd at one point argues that, while fiction is carefully constructed:
Life, on the other hand, can often behave in a way which is much more random, aimless and quite simply somewhat muddled. Life is like porridge. And anyone who wants to give it a stir in order to try and extract a kind of meaning from it, and then to write it down, must either cheat massively regarding the order of events or accept that he's never going to become famous.
       With Lobster Life, Hansen does offer up a hearty bowl of porridge. It's an enjoyable story of a young teen and the strange circumstances he grows up in, and a grand hotel in its final decline, with a good sense of humor throughout. It does take an abruptly dark turn in its conclusion -- truly dark -- which then helps explain the so striking ingenuousness of the narrator and his voice all along, as if there were no other way to tell the story. It's quite successful, overall -- even if some of Sedd's actions (and inaction) feel under-developed and explored.
       It makes for a solid heap of a book to immerse oneself in -- ultimately more melancholy (and, in a few bits and pieces, truly horrifying) than one might long suspect, but still quite thoroughly enjoyable.

- M.A.Orthofer, 15 December 2020

- Return to top of the page -


Lobster Life: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

- Return to top of the page -

About the Author:

       Norwegian author Erik Fosnes Hansen was born in 1965.

- Return to top of the page -

© 2020 the complete review

Main | the New | the Best | the Rest | Review Index | Links