Performance artist Jenny Hval’s second novel, Girls Against God – translated by Marjam Idriss, who deserves extra credit for how difficult it must have been to render the intricacies of Norwegian dialect and linguistics into a different language – is described as part manifesto, part time-travelling fever dream, and I’d say that’s an accurate reflection. Set in 1990s Norway, when the “Gloomiest Child Queen” is young, we see how the conservative Christianity shapes her view of the world, and how she is supposed to move within it. She lays out all of the things she hates in monologue/essay form: God; the south Norwegian accent with it’s emphasised ‘R’s; the school photographers’ insistence on smiling.
As she grows up, she discovers the death metal scene and sees it as an outlet for the hate that drives her, though she finds few other women among it. The stream of consciousness style often reads like separate monologues, rather than as chapters of a novel, but joining them together is the return, again and again, to a film she is trying to create, and then things start to get strange.
The second half of the novel is more fragmented, losing some of the force of the first half as the writing becomes more fevered and disjointed. Edvard Munch time travels to join a band, bringing Puberty – the subject of one of his paintings – with him. Curses conjured by a coven of witches in Oslo start to take effect. The characters from the Artist’s film invade her real life. It’s hard to distinguish where imagined scenes from the film start and end, and where real life creeps in.
The effect of this merging of the real and imagined is what sustains the second half of the novel, which feels reminiscent of Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream, though with different subject matter. The sense of horror is the same; something coming unravelled, and the difficulty in finding the “real” beneath the imaginary. It’s a rejection of so many things, underpinned by the hatred of God – a patriarchal God; one of constricted religion, of men, of conservatism. Though not an easy read, this is a truly transgressive one.
Published by Verso Books, Girls Against God is out now. Buy from bookshop.org and support indie bookshops (affiliate link)
Terri-Jane Dow is the editor of Severine, and a writer based in London. You can find her on instagram @terri_jane.