REVIEW of ‘The Gradual Disappearance of Jane Ashland’ by Nicolai Houm

“A cleverly structured novel that explores the emotions of grief and loss.”

After a tragic accident that changes American writer Jane Ashland’s life, she travels to Norway in search of distant relatives. But when things begin to go wrong, she contacts a zoologist, who she met by chance on the plane, and ends up accompanying him on a taxing hike through the Dovrefjell mountains.  However, that trip soon takes a turn for the worst too. Waking up alone in a tent, surrounded by a storm and dense fog, and with a dead mobile phone, Jane is completely cut off from civilisation, with no food or navigation equipment. In her isolation, she reflects on her past and her desperate endeavours to search for new meaning. But will she succeed? The landscape of the Norwegian mountain range is described so vividly and beautifully that readers feel as if they are transported to the wild, rugged, yet tranquil location.  The misty environment really helps to accentuate the atmosphere of the novel and Jane’s mindset.  Equally, the scenery raises the tension at certain points in the story which triggers readers’ curiosity and makes them eager to read on.

An element that stood out for me was the structure of the book as the plot flits between the past and present of Jane’s life. Although it requires a bit of legwork from the reader to create a mental timeline of events, it is not impossible to work out what is happening.  And who doesn’t like a challenge? The alternating chapters between past and present act like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle in that Jane is behaving in a particular way in the present which initially perplexes you, but you are then informed of an event in the past which explains the reasons for her odd behaviour.  As you move through the text, things begin to make sense and you gradually create an overall picture of both the story and Jane.

The oscillating chapters were very enlightening for Jane’s character development as she evolves from her initial portrait as a strange woman to a psychologically complex and real individual. For as you learn about her mental health issues and the reasons behind them, you start to understand her feelings and actions.  As a result, you not only think about the serious subject of mental health, but you also really sympathise with her; her life is a prime example of how life itself moves in cycles through both good and bad events. Even if she cannot understand or explain why things happen the way they do, Jane continues to move forward and attempts to find new purposes which is very inspiring to read.

Although Camilla is only a minor character, she is nevertheless significant because she highlights the struggles of a teenage girl, particularly in regards to appearance and body image.  Despite the novel being fiction, it incites you to think about the deep and contemporary societal issue of self-image and confidence. In such a situation, Camilla seems weak but it is Jane who is inspirational because she confronts what is wrong and is determined to stick to her values and what is right.  Whilst Ulf is an unusual man, his presence is reassuring for Jane and he exemplifies how it is better to communicate grief and loss with someone else, even a complete stranger, as opposed to carrying the burden alone.

The Gradual Disappearance of Jane Ashland is a story about life and its cyclical nature of ups and downs. Houm’s narrative describes the Norwegian landscape so beautifully as he explores the tumultuous nature of grief, loss, coming to terms with things and acceptance.

Rating: 4/5

The Gradual Disappearance of Jane Ashland will be available in store and online in paperback and Kindle formats from 26thApril.

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