The House by the Fjord is the last novel of the prolific romance writer Barbara Øvstedal (1921-2012), who wrote primarily under the pen name of Rosalind Laker. Her many historical romance novels, notably To Dance With Kings (about the court of Louis XIV), The Golden Tulip (about Vermeer), and The Venetian Mask (about orphaned music students in the Ospedale della Pietà in 18th century Venice), brought her much recognition and the chance to work with Jacqueline Onassis, her editor at Doubleday. She was born in Bognor Regis, West Sussex, England, to a Canadian father and English mother. In 1945, her life would change dramatically when she married Inge Øvstedal, a Norwegian who had escaped Nazi-occupied Norway by fishing boat in 1941. When she met him, he was stationed in West Sussex with the Royal Norwegian Air Force–the Norwegian air force in exile, which was fighting with the Allies and preparing for Normandy. In 1946, the young couple and their infant daughter moved to Gardermøen, Norway.
This town figures prominently in The House by the Fjord, in which the heroine, Anna Harvik, arrives for the first time in Norway as a war bride. The time is 1946, the immediate postwar period, when Norway is still suffering the aftershocks of the brutal Nazi occupation; this was the year in which the author herself went to live in her husband’s native country. But the fictional Anna is alone. Her husband Johan has died in the war, and she is fulfilling the demands of kindness, duty, and a good measure of curiosity by accepting an invitation from Johan’s father to visit him and see her late husband’s boyhood home. The opening chapters of the book are very agreeably filled with Anna’s interactions with the close-knit group of war brides who have banded together to help ease their adjustment to living in a new country. They accept her quickly and many become her close friends, helping her learn to speak Norwegian, teaching her about local foods, even showing her the local dance steps. As much as she appreciates this warm reception, she keeps assuring everyone that this is only a visit and she will soon be returning to her home in England. Unruffled, the townsfolk nod and hold to their own opinion that once the healing beauty of Norway seeps into her soul, she won’t ever wish to leave it.
Anna’s grieving father-in-law, Steffan, is emotionally reticent at first, yet equally determined to have her stay. She learns from (handsome, single) lawyer Alex Ringstad that Steffan has another plan in mind as well: he is eager for Anna to take possession of the old Harvik family house in the mountains–the house by the fjord–which has always been passed down the generations to female relatives. Anna rejects this idea out of hand at first, resisting as politely as she can. To pique her interest, Steffan gives Anna his own grandmother’s private journal, which he has had translated into English expressly for his English daughter-in-law and beautifully bound for her. It details Ingrid Harvik’s long and eventful life, beginning in 1878, when she was 16, and newly widowed herself. The many pages of this journal, which Laker interpolates into the story as Anna reads them, make for some of the most gripping passages of this novel. In the first entry, young Ingrid confided her unhappiness in her first brief marriage to Erik Berdal, a cold and cruel man, and her determination to make a better life for herself. She was setting out, traveling by pony and wagonette, to see the old mountain house by the fjord that she had inherited from her grandmother:
… although I have never seen it, I feel drawn to it as if it has long been beckoning to me. … I have packed my belongings in my bridal chest. These include the bed linen and hand-woven blankets with the blue and white pattern that I brought to my marriage, but nothing that came from Berdal’s purse. I have also taken my father’s field gun, which he sold to Berdal once when he was desperate for money, and a box of bullets. When sober, my father was a good shot at bringing down ptarmigan and other game birds in season. He was also a skillful angler and taught me to fish, and indeed sometimes it depended on our catch whether we had something for our supper. So I am taking my rod and line, which as a birthday gift from him and with which I caught my first salmon, and many more fish since that day.
My pony, which I named Hans-Petter, is a fjording, one of the sturdy native breed that have been ridden and worked on this land since Viking times. Patient and gentle, they are a beautiful cream colour and have a characteristic black streak running through the mane and down the tail. Hans-Petter has been my only friend during my unhappy time… (pp.113-114)
Anna reads this account with growing excitement and the narration switches to third person, as if moving back into Anna’s reading experience, her own understanding of that first glimpse, along with Ingrid.
As she drove up higher, she was presented with a wonderful view of the valley that was a cul-de-sac of farmland and forest. Then, as if nature wished to treat her lavishly, there lay in the other direction the greatest of all views, the sparkling sun-diamond fjord that was as deep as the mountains were high. On its far shore stood the village of Molde. …
Ahead there were tantalizing glimpses of her new home through the trees. Then suddenly it came into full view, a two storied house built of dark logs with its windows shuttered and padlocked. It was much larger than she had imagined it would be and she could scarcely believe her good fortune. Its roof was turf-covered and thick with harebells and buttercups and wild pansies as if it were wearing a floral crown in which to greet her. She felt her heart go out to it, this haven where she could live and breathe as a liberated woman at last. (p. 115)
I was most enchanted to read this description of the turf roof, covered with wildflowers. One could imagine sleeping in the heavy, carved beds of the house, knowing one was under a living canopy of flowers, and then waking to look out on the “sun-diamond fjord.”
Although this house near Molde is not as grand as Ingrid’s, it does have a turf roof, and the panorama of the fjord behind it.
Anna is captivated by Ingrid’s strength and pluck, as well as her acceptance of herself as a woman still desirous of finding real love and sexual fulfillment with a better man. Ingrid meets and marries Magnus Harvik, who is already a famous painter of Norwegian landscapes, and thus she begins her life as mother and matriarch of the sprawling family that will lead in Anna’s time to her beloved Johan. Anna is well aware that her new friends are urging her to be open to the possibility that she might love again, and find that love in Norway. The rest of the story shows how she deals with questions of love and trust, of family and independence, of heritage and finding one’s true home. In the process, she also uncovers the sobering truth behind a mystery connected with the house, sparked by clues from Ingrid’s journal.
Anyone who has loved Rosamund Pilcher’s novels set in Cornwall, in particular The Shell Seekers, would quickly warm to Rosalind Laker’s beautifully told story in The House by the Fjord. I’m eager now to read some of her other books, especially This Shining Land, about a woman who joins the Norwegian resistance, but I know this last novel of hers, closest to her own experience, will likely remain my favorite.