Trondheim: A Novel

  • By Cormac James
  • Bellevue Literary Press
  • 288 pp.
  • Reviewed by Marcie Geffner
  • March 6, 2024

Two women struggle to save their marriage — and their son.

Trondheim: A Novel

Can a story about two middle-aged women who spend a week waiting around an ICU for their son to awaken from a coma be engaging, even compelling? Yes — at least if it’s Trondheim, the third novel by Cormac James, an Irish expat living in France.

Lillian, a 45-year-old trainer, is carrying sacks of rubble from a DIY remodeling project down four flights of stairs from the apartment in Montpellier, France, she shares with her wife, Alba, a 48-year-old translator, when the phone rings. The caller delivers terrible news: The eldest of Lil and Alba’s three children, 20-year-old Pierre, suffered a heart attack at a bus station near his student housing in Trondheim, Norway. He was dead, technically, for a brief period before a bus driver revived him. Now, he’s on life support at St. Olav’s Hospital.

Whether he will awaken and, if so, with or without significant brain damage, may seem to be the central issue of this tale. It’s not. Or rather, not entirely. The book’s first sentence reveals that today’s the day on which Lil and Alba’s son “was going to die.” The verb tense offers an important early clue that Pierre’s fate might already be determined.

What’s much less certain is the fate of the women’s marriage, which is fragile, fractious, and deeply troubled even before their urgent journey across Europe. Lil pushes and rushes through the crowds of travelers, desperate to hurry onward, while Alba holds back, fearful of what lies ahead.

Soon, they’ve spoken with Dr. Mya, one of Norway’s top heart specialists, and seen their son, who’s hooked up to multiple machines. Lil works off her anxiety at a student sporting event that Pierre had planned to attend, while Alba prays for the ability to accept Pierre’s death — if it’s indeed God’s will that he die.

At the end of a very long day, Lil and Alba end up together in the hospital’s cafeteria:

“They were not being patient. They were simply stunned, by their own impotence.”

No year is given, but the date is Nov. 27th, nearly Christmas and three weeks before Pierre’s 21st birthday. It’s winter in Norway, so most of every day is dark or dusky. The snowfall, when it comes, is “implausibly perfect.”

As the week wears on, and Pierre’s survival remains in doubt, Lil and Alba struggle with their personal demons and their very different, yet equally futile coping mechanisms. The only thing they seem to share is disappointment with each other.

“You end up resenting in your partner the very qualities for which you chose them,” thinks Alba. “They had long since reached that point in a relationship where everything seen or heard or done is just more of the same,” reflects Lil.

The story takes time to develop and includes a lot of detail early on about childcare arrangements for Lil and Alba’s two younger kids; information on the planes, trains, and buses the women must take to get to Scandinavia; and a one-night stopover with Alba’s father.

Once they reach the hospital, though, the story expands and deepens into a delicate spiral of rising and falling tension as the mothers wait, hope, suffer, falter, cope, and then repeat the pattern. The setting and circumstances may seem ordinary, but there’s much more going on here than a mundane — if dreadfully awful — medical emergency.

That opening-sentence suggestion aside, will Pierre, in fact, emerge from his coma? And will Lil and Alba’s marriage survive whatever comes? Trondheim allows readers to make the prognosis. Whatever it might be, James’ elegant novel will leave them shattered and uplifted.

Marcie Geffner is a writer, editor, and book reviewer in Ventura, California.

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