A Change of Time: A Novel
- By Ida Jessen; translated by Martin Aitken
- Archipelago Books
- 250 pp.
- Reviewed by M.K. Tod
- May 30, 2020
This quiet tale of rural Denmark celebrates life’s small, intimate moments.
Imagine picking up a woman’s diary and trying to decipher her character. Imagine teasing out enough from the details to understand her life, her loves, and the circumstances that have made her who she is. Imagine the passing years through gaps that occur in the diary — were those years of contentment or strife?
How did L. Hoy Schoolteacher, as the diary proudly announces on its first page, become Fru Bagge, wife of Thyregod’s only doctor?
Ida Jessen’s novel A Change of Time brings this story to life with spare, yet beautiful, prose superbly translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken.
The diarist knows everything. At the beginning, the reader knows nothing. Clues emerge. At times, they are almost hidden. At other times, they are parceled out in small pieces that only become meaningful when puzzled together with other pieces, or upon later reflection.
In the early entries, a man is in the hospital; for a while, we don’t know who he is or his significance to L. Hoy. We do know that “his gentle flesh is gone, though heaven knows there was precious little to begin with.” Does the diarist want us to focus on the word gentle or flesh?
Several entries later, we discover that it is her dying husband, Vigand Bagge. A hint of the dynamic between husband and wife emerges as Fru Bagge pens this thought: “What will I do when he is no longer here? Who will then remind me of what I am to think? Who will keep me in place? I shall have to find my own place.”
As the diary goes back and forth from present to past, Fru Bagge answers these central questions. Along the way, she reflects on her life, the people she knows, the town and countryside where she has lived for more than 20 years, and her marriage.
Mingled in with her memories and the chronicle of her days are insights about humanity, human failings, death, grief, bitterness, and widowhood: “For long periods of time I am able to remind myself to contain the bitterness of my private life so as not to lose my dignity or narrow my horizons.”
She poses questions and ultimately finds answers. “What am I to do, with no one to look after and everything taken care of? Am I to be an outcast?”
There are occasions when she hears her dead husband’s voice and speaks to him, and we learn more about their relationship. “You’re wicked, Vigand,” she says, “I tell him out loud and suddenly it occurs to me that he cannot contradict me.”
But as time passes, Vigand’s voice fades away. “I am waiting for Vigand to make himself known. Where are you, Vigand? Say something. Box my ears!”
A Change of Time satisfies on many levels — prose, inner dialogue, the depiction of time and place, Fru Bagge’s growing self-discovery. “I think it may safely be said that to the young men, or perhaps the men in general, I was an attractive blend of something attainable, and yet absolutely unattainable.”
And at another point: “Such shifting winds in life. Therein the advantage of becoming older. One finds oneself with several lives, and may skip from one to another.”
Fru Bagge’s voice strengthens as the novel unfolds and she decides how to live. There’s charm in her comments about friends and the people of Thyregod, and her young days as a teacher. We learn about the land in that corner of Denmark and the habits and attitudes of the townspeople who have lived through war and change and challenging circumstances.
It’s a quiet novel that prompts contemplation on the part of the reader. It’s not a book to read quickly or to skim, because to do so would mean missing the essence of L. Hoy Schoolteacher.
[Editor's note: This review originally ran in 2019.]
M.K. (Mary) Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, Time and Regret, was published by Lake Union. Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads, or on her award-winning blog, A Writer of History.