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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Stella Descending

Linn Ullmann

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To purchase Stella Descending

Title: Stella Descending
Author: Linn Ullmann
Genre: Novel
Written: 2001 (Eng. 2003)
Length: 247 pages
Original in: Norwegian
Availability: Stella Descending - US
Stella Descending - UK
Stella Descending - Canada
Vertiges - France
Wenn ich bei dir bin - Deutschland
  • Norwegian title: Når jeg er hos deg
  • Translated by Barbara Haveland

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Our Assessment:

B+ : nicely done, but too carried away by invention and too loosely told

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Age . 8/5/2004 Cameron Woodhead
The Guardian . 15/1/2005 Sarah Adams
The Independent . 23/1/2004 Paul Binding
The LA Times . 24/8/2003 Michael Harris
The NY Times Book Rev. . 31/8/2003 Mary Elizabeth Williams
Süddeutsche Zeitung . 26/03/2003 Kristina Maidt-Zinke
Telegraph . 26/1/2004 Rachel Cusk

  From the Reviews:
  • "In spare, beautifully crafted prose, Stella Descending whittles away the deceptions that pervade our intimate relationships to expose a gnawing isolation from which only a temporary respite seems possible. It is a painful, deeply distressing novel and yet its cumulative impact produces the opposite -- the kind of elation you can get only in the presence of great art." - Cameron Woodhead, The Age

  • "This wholly peculiar and sharply translated exploration of the predatory nature of domestic relationships is a triumph. It teases out the tricks we resort to for fear of our hearts being eaten alive." - Sarah Adams, The Guardian

  • "Ullmann's grasp of the ambiguous natures of her people, and her understanding of their backgrounds, is admirably strong. The governing metaphor of the fall, and of the density of those two seconds, is at once poetic and intellectually satisfying. What for me at times vitiates the novel's success, however, is Ullmann's inclusion of material extraneous to this central image." - Paul Binding, The Independent

  • "Though Ullmann (...) often lets her narrative wander off like an errant toddler, her confidence that the side trips are essential to the destination never wavers. Her gift is for weaving the banal details of love, career and family with the mystic world of dreams and ghosts into one seamless fabric." - Mary Elizabeth Williams, The New York Times Book Review

  • "These are deeply interesting variations on the theme of modern love and marriage, whose purpose is to demonstrate how ordinary men and women have internalised, and continue to live, the story of their sex. Ullmann is a fine writer, complex, intelligent and scrupulous." - Rachel Cusk, Telegraph

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.

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The complete review's Review:

       Stella Descending centres around a dramatic occurrence: on 27 August 2000 Stella plunged nine stories off a rooftop to her death. She was up there with Martin, and it is unclear whether she jumped, fell, or was pushed.
       Stella and Martin were together for over a decade. They have a daughter, Bee, who is ten. Stella also has another child, fifteen year old Amanda, but her father is long out of the picture.
       Stella Descending is narrated by several characters: there are eyewitness accounts from the three passers-by who witnessed the fatal fall, some commentary from special investigator Corinne Danielsen (who believe Martin murdered Stella), and accounts and reflections by Amanda (but not Bee), Axel (an old man Stella befriended in a hospital she worked at), and even Stella herself. In addition there is also a transcript of a video recording Martin and Stella made on the day of her death (ostensibly to record their possessions for insurance purposes, though they don't manage to focus on that too well).
       The accounts focus on the fall and the aftermath (especially the day of Stella's funeral), but include reminiscences going years back. Some is only related second-hand -- it is Corinne who recounts much of what Martin has to say, for example -- and events and occurrences (including the fall) are often seen through different eyes. Axel is fascinated by Ferris wheels, and it is like one of these that the story keeps returning to the same places.
       It is an interesting mix of voices: old Axel, who has also become an important anchor for Amanda -- who is a flighty teen --, suspicious Corinne, calmly nostalgic Stella. Much doesn't seem particularly significant at first -- or even almost too trivial to bother with -- but it's a fine web Ullmann spins, and ultimately a coherent and agreeable picture of the lives of and relationships among these characters emerges. But it is a novel of separation more than connexion: of unbridgeable gaps, the inability to truly communicate and to hold fast to each other -- making for a novel that is both life- (and family-) affirming and yet also profoundly melancholy.
       There are quirky, odd touches throughout. Some -- like how Martin entered Stella's life -- Ullmann gets away with, but a few (like the resident plumber) seem too forced. The shifting narrative and different perspectives are, for the most part, successful. Ullmann captures the different voices well, especially in how they try to come to grips with what happened -- by turn in denial, analytic, or simply sad.
       Stella Descending doesn't come to a neat, clean murder-mystery conclusion -- it's nowhere near that simple. Ullmann's open-ended ending may not be quite as easily satisfying, but gives the book greater resonance. There's not quite enough to all of it -- the web remains finely spun and very delicate -- but the novel still impresses.

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Stella Descending: Reviews: Linn Ullmann: Other books by Linn Ullmann under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Norwegian journalist and author Linn Ullmann was born in 1966. (And, yes, she is the daughter of Liv Ullmann and Ingmar Bergman.)

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© 2003-2010 the complete review

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