Wilful Disregard: A Novel About Love.
Lena Andersson (translated by Sarah Death)
Rating 5* Beautiful, brutal, and honest (and a very talented translator)
An academic writer and poet, Ester Nilsson, falls inconsolably in love with the emotionally unavailable philandering artist, Hugo Rask, in this raw, beautiful but often humiliating, account of obsession, self-deception, and unrequited love. Elegantly written with sharp, painful, and often hilarious observations about human nature and behaviour, this short novel is deliciously consumable in one easy sitting. But be warned – you may cringe inwardly at Ester’s train of thoughts and actions, but only because much of it touches extremely close to home.
Whilst the subject of unrequited love and its disciples envy, obsession, and self-deception are not novel in fiction, Swedish author Lena Anderssen has an uncanny ability to portray these tricksters in a painfully humane way. Wilful Disregard is part novel, part endurance test. Being an observer of Ester’s downward descent is, at times, torturous not only because you want to shake some common sense into her, but because for many, this novel is a reading of a time in our own lives. Many of us have loved someone that didn’t love us in return, and even more of us have dated the wrong person to devastating effect, despite the warnings of everyone around us. More often than not love really is blind, and as Anderssen shows through Ester, the biggest culprit is our capacity to deceive ourselves:
“She convinced herself and others that she was no longer hoping the two of them would become a couple. All she wanted was an admission – of what had been, that there had been something, that he had felt something, that there had been times when he doubted and wavered – and for him to have got back in touch this autumn in spite of it all being over because there was a damp patch in him that refused to dry.”
Wilful Disregard is a short novel, and author Anderssen does not mince her words. Every sentence is a rich structure of almost poetic composition (as our Kindle highlights reflect, almost every sentence is notable and quotable). The concise writing style is most remarkable when describing Ester’s relationship with her partner, prior to his unceremonious dumping for the “magnificent and singular” Hugo. Ester is completely unaware of the consequences of her actions for her partner; she lives in a delusion whereby her secret love affair is visible only to herself and Hugo, something only they share. In reality it is obvious to all:
“Hugo’s text messages generally arrived at night … around midnight he would send a friendly line that she would read the instant it arrived. In the bed beside her lay a human being who did not exist.”
Compared to the transcendent aura of Hugo Rask Ester’s partner is exiled to the dark, reduced to nothing but an inanimate object which happens to share her home. Ester knows nothing of his reality, of the “silent fury” he feels inside, the “almost despair” nor does she particularly care.
For the reader, Ester evokes conflicted feelings. At times we feel Ester deserved the treatment she received from Hugo as recompense for her treatment of her ex-boyfriend: a karmic retribution. At other times it is difficult to muster any concern for a woman that continues to fall for a man who brazenly tells her:
“Feelings are something one should be wary of portraying … I mean, its all about manipulating the recipient into feeling what you want them to feel. This isn’t achieved by showing the feelings in question, but by evoking them. Which call for entirely different means.”
Come on, Ester! That isn’t the intuitive introspection of a philosophical genius, it’s the pseudo-academic bullshit of an emotionally- unavailable egoist!
A particularly poignant aspect of this novel is its over-arching theme of human fallibility in the game of love. Unrequited love, torment, obsession, denial, self-deception, manipulation, misogyny, bigamy, causal and meaningless sex – they are all without prejudice and wholly universal. Even the intelligent, insightful, charming, professional and worldly academic can be used for a quick shag and then ghosted. Even the most emotionally astute among us can completely and devastatingly misread a situation and deceive ourselves:
“She hazily recollected that until recently she had devoted herself to matters other than her feelings, taken an interest in the outside world, tried to learn things and enjoyed the sheer fact of her existence. Now all she did was try to understand whether he wanted her or not.”
When Hugo doesn’t have the respectful courage to tell Ester its over and instead cowardly turns cold on her, her attempts to cling on to hope – any slightest hint of the mere potential of hope - are painful to read, and Hugo’s complete ignorance piteous. But for author Anderssen it is in these moments of human despair and torment that her writing is at its most beautiful. The emotional intensity and candour in her writing leaves you feeling bruised, both physically and of the heart. There is a conflict between thinking Hugo cruel, unjust, and cowardly in his actions, but the seed of doubt is sown by Ester’s own sudden and intensely disproportionate involvement in someone she has only just met. Is Hugo the cruel misogynist, or is Ester a little bit of a bunny boiler?
It is up to you to decide, but it is hoped that you enjoy this book as thoroughly as we did. Our final thoughts, having analysed the cycle of emotional conflict we experienced whilst reading this novel, is that, despite the title, this isn’t a story about love, not really. It may be about one woman’s love but it is about all of our collective shame and embarrassment: of being rejected, unworthy, undervalued, used, cast aside; the shame we feel when we know we are behaving irrationally but we are powerless to stop it; the shame of being so completely dependent, and of being so wholly submissive to another that doesn’t deserve it.
We leave you with the following note on Hope, by Ester Nilsson:
“Starvation rations do not help either; a parasite cannot be put on a diet of bread and water. The supply of nourishment must be completely cut off. If Hope can find oxygen, it will. There can be oxygen in a poorly directed adjective, a rash adverb, a compensatory sympathetic gesture, a bodily movement, a smile, a gleam in an eye. The hopeful party will choose to remain oblivious to the fact that empathy is a mechanical force. The indifferent party automatically shows care, for self-protection and to shield the person in distress. Hope has to be starved to death if it is not to beguile and bedazzle its host. Hope can only be killed by the brutality of clarity. Hope is cruel because it binds and entraps. When the parasite Hope is taken from its carrier the Host, the carrier either dies or is set free. Hope and its symbiosis, it must be said, do not believe in a change in the innermost will of the beloved. The hope that inhabits the human heart believes that this will is already present; that the beloved really – actually – wants what he pretends not to want, or does not want what he pretends to want, but has been misled by the evil world around him into wanting; in short, that things are not as they seem. That the tiny glimpse of something else is the truth. That is what Hope is.” – Ester Nilsson, Wilful Disregard.
** Potential Spoiler Warning **
When reading I always extract quotes that I find particular poignant or well-written. I have included these below and citing their page number/Kindle location. Some of these quotes might present spoilers.
Citation (APA): (2019). Wilful Disregard, by Lena Andersson [Kindle Android version]. Retrieved from Amazon.com
“The dreadful gulf between thought and words, will and expression, reality and unreality, and the things that flourish in that gulf, are what this story is about.” (Location 13)
“Ester gave him a long-winded explanation of her visit. She accounted for something nobody was wondering about to hide something nobody could see.” (Location 70)
‘Because it’s beautiful,’ he said , crumpling the slip of paper and throwing it into a waste-paper basket. She felt weak in every joint at seeing these physical movements and at the sensuality that must reside in anyone who sees that people in the rain can be beautiful. Was this not exactly what she had been seeking all her life?” (Location 110)
“She had started putting her mobile in her dressing-table drawer and in the reckless self-absorption of being in love she failed to register that the man beside her was lying awake in silent fury. Despair was too big a word, because he was a reserved type, even to himself, but not many sizes too big.” (Location 123)
“She wondered whether it had been utter madness for her, neither reflecting nor agonizing and propelled purely by emotions, to leave a well-functioning relationship in order to step out into this void. The fact was that she shunned ennui, always had done. She would rather endure torment than tedium, would rather be alone than in a group of people making small talk. Not because she disliked the small-talkers, but because they absorbed too much energy. Small talk drained her. Perhaps, she debated with herself, she had engineered falling in love with Hugo because she had imperceptibly grown bored and needed this anxiety intermingled with hope and a bliss that was absolute, in order to feel alive.” (Location 289)
“Ester thought this new honesty must spring from a feeling of greater closeness. If you were close, you did not want to lie. Lying demands a certain amount of dehumanization, at least at that moment. Lying is a carapace. Not to lie when the temptation exists is to render oneself naked.” (Location 312)
“When you love and someone receives that love, the body feels light. When the opposite happens, one kilo weighs three.” (Location 450)