The Orange Girl by Jostein Gaarder (tr. James Anderson) – #NordicFINDS23

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.

Remember These? Books beginning with ‘C’

Remember These? is a series of posts looking at some of the books I recorded in my old pre-blogging reading diary. The diary spanned my teenage years to my early twenties, so most of the books mentioned below will have been read during the 1990s and although I’ve included my original ratings, these do not necessarily reflect what I would feel about the books if I read them again today!

I gave the books ratings out of 5. The symbol * means I loved the book. X means I didn’t finish it.

Books beginning with ‘C’

Here are a selection of the books that appeared on the ‘C’ page of my notebook:

The Clan of the Cave Bear – Jean M Auel (5/5*)

This is the first book in the Earth’s Children series which follows the adventures of Ayla, a prehistoric girl who is adopted by a group of Neanderthal people. I loved this one, but for some reason I couldn’t get into the second book at all, so gave up on the series. Should I give these books another chance?

Charley – Joan G. Robinson (5/5*)

Also published under the title, The Girl Who Ran Away. I’d love to hear from anyone else who remembers this children’s book, as it was one of my favourites. It was about a girl called Charley who was sent to stay with her aunt. When a misunderstanding caused her to believe that her aunt didn’t want her, she ran away and tried to survive on her own in the English countryside.

Claudia’s Shadow – Charlotte Vale Allen (4/5)

I can’t remember reading this one at all! Here’s a description from Amazon: “When her sister Claudia dies mysteriously, Rowena Graham cannot accept the verdict of suicide. In a desperate move to learn the facts about her sister’s death, Rowena moves into her sister’s home and takes over the management of Claudia’s restaurant.”

Children of the Dust – Louise Lawrence (3/5)

This is a post-apocalyptic YA novel which follows the story of three generations of people who survive a nuclear war. I read this book at school and remember it being a very effective and harrowing portrayal of both the war itself and the aftermath.

The Christmas Mystery – Jostein Gaarder (3/5)

I first read this as a teenager and re-read it in December 2009 (my review is here). I didn’t like it as much as Gaarder’s other books such as Sophie’s World or The Solitaire Mystery, but it is a perfect book to read at Christmas and has an interesting advent-calendar structure of twenty-four chapters, one for each day of advent.

Choices – Noah Gordon (3/5)

This is the third in a trilogy of books by Noah Gordon about three doctors from three different generations of the Cole family who have all inherited a special ‘gift’: they can sense when a patient is going to die. The first book, The Physician, is set in the 11th century; the second, Shaman, is set during the US Civil War. This one has a more modern setting and I didn’t enjoy it as much as the first two. It was also a lot shorter and didn’t have the same ‘epic’ feel.

The Copper Peacock – Ruth Rendell (2/5)

A short story collection by the crime writer Ruth Rendell. I can’t even remember reading this book or anything else by Ruth Rendell.

The Celestine Prophecy – James Redfield (1/5)

This book was part adventure story, part spiritual self-help book. It was about an ancient manuscript discovered in the rainforests of Peru, which contains nine important insights into life. Although it sounded fascinating I was very disappointed by it.

Crucifix Lane – Kate Mosse (x)

Kate Mosse is better known as the author of Labyrinth, Sepulchre and The Winter Ghosts. This was one of her earlier novels and something a bit different, as it was a science-fiction novel about a woman from the 1990s who travels 11 years forward in time. I didn’t manage to finish this one and haven’t had any better luck with any of her other novels.

Have you read any of the books I’ve mentioned?

Coming soon… Remember These? Books Beginning with ‘D’

Review: The Christmas Mystery by Jostein Gaarder

“They were going to Bethlehem, to Bethlehem- because that’s where the Christ-child was born.”

The Christmas Mystery begins in Norway on 30th November when a boy named Joachim discovers a hand-made Advent calendar in a book shop. The next day, when Joachim opens the first door, he finds a tiny piece of paper telling the story of a little girl called Elisabet who spots a lamb in a department store. The lamb begins to run away, but Elisabet is determined to stroke it and chases after it. The lamb leads her outside and into the woods where she meets the angel Ephiriel, who explains to her that she is now part of a very special pilgrimage to Bethlehem – not only will they be travelling across land, they will also be travelling back through time to the day when Jesus was born.

As Elisabet, Ephiriel and the lamb move closer to Bethlehem and further back in time, they are joined by an assortment of other Biblical characters including shepherds and Wise Men. A little more of their story is revealed every day through the pieces of paper hidden in Joachim’s advent calendar, but as the tale of Elisabet’s journey unfolds, Joachim and his parents become involved in another mystery: the mystery of John, the mysterious flower-seller who made the magic Advent calendar and the real-life Elisabet who disappeared on Christmas Eve in 1948.

The book is divided into 24 chapters, with each chapter representing one door on the Advent calendar. If you have children, the structure of the book would make it perfect for reading aloud, one chapter per day in the weeks leading up to Christmas. This is not really a ‘children’s book’ though – it’s one of those books that can be enjoyed on different levels by people of all ages. As with all of Jostein Gaarder’s books the story introduces us to a large number of philosophical ideas. We also learn some interesting historical and geographical facts about the countries Elisabet passes through on her way to Bethlehem.
Although this is not as good as some of Gaarder’s other books such as Sophie’s World or The Solitaire Mystery, it has to be one of the most unusual and imaginative Christmas stories I’ve ever read.

Genre: General Fiction/Pages: 247/Publisher: Phoenix – Translated by Elizabeth Rokkan & Illustrated by Rosemary Wells/Year: 1996/Source: Bought new