What is this great fairytale we live in and which each of us is only permitted to experience for such a short time? Maybe the space telescope will help us to understand more of the nature of this fairytale one day. Perhaps out there, behind the galaxies, lies the answer to what a human being is.
It’s been years since I last read anything by Jostein Gaarder! I loved Sophie’s World and The Solitaire Mystery, which I read around the time they were published in English in the mid-1990s, but although I read a few more of his books after that I found them disappointing in comparison and didn’t explore any of his later work. This month, Annabel is hosting her second Nordic FINDS event, celebrating literature from Finland, Iceland, Norway, Denmark and Sweden, and I thought it would be a good opportunity to try one of the Gaarder novels I never got round to reading.
First published in Norwegian in 2003 and translated into English by James Anderson the following year, The Orange Girl is narrated by Georg Røed, a fifteen-year-old boy whose father, Jan Olav, died eleven years earlier. Georg’s mother has married again and had another child and Georg gets on well enough with both, but he has never stopped wondering about the father he can barely remember. One day, Georg’s grandmother finds a letter written by Jan Olav before his death and addressed to Georg, intended for his son to read when he was old enough to understand it. The Orange Girl includes Jan Olav’s letter in full, interspersed with Georg’s reaction to it and the lessons he learns from it.
In the letter, Jan Olav tells the story of a young woman he meets in Oslo in the 1970s. He comes to think of her as ‘the Orange Girl’ because when he sees her for the first time on a tram, she is wearing an orange dress and carrying a large bag of oranges. When the tram stops, she disappears, leaving Jan Olav desperate to find her again. As the weeks and months go by, he becomes obsessed with tracking down the mysterious Orange Girl and discovering her true identity. Who is she? Why did she need so many oranges? And why is it important for Georg to hear her story so many years later?
On the surface, The Orange Girl is a quick, easy read. Being narrated by a teenage boy, it’s written in simple language (Georg actually feels more like a ten or eleven-year-old than a fifteen-year-old), and like many of Gaarder’s novels, it would be perfect for younger readers. The story of the Orange Girl is entertaining and amusing – particularly when Jan Olav creates a series of imaginary scenarios to explain the huge bag of oranges! I would have liked to have been given a stronger sense of place as Jan Olav follows the girl from Oslo to Seville and back again, but it wasn’t that sort of book; it’s concerned mainly with plot and ideas rather than setting.
However, anyone who has read any of Gaarder’s other books will know that they always contain a philosophical element, and this one is no different. Georg and his father share an interest in the Hubble Space Telescope, which leads to a lot of discussion of the expanding universe and the place of human beings within it. The book also raises the question of whether, if you knew before you were born that you would die early and have all your happiness taken away, would you still choose to be born at all? These are clearly the things Gaarder really wanted to write about here, and the Orange Girl story is just a way of illustrating these philosophical points.
I haven’t been left wanting to immediately search out the rest of Gaarder’s novels, but I did find this one quite enjoyable and am glad I picked it up for Nordic FINDS.