A Change of Time

Ida Jessen

translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken
Archipelago Books 2019
A book review by Danny Yee © 2019 http://dannyreviews.com/
When the town doctor goes into hospital to die, his wife — now Fru Bagge and previously "L. Høy, schoolteacher", with her first name not revealed until much later — finds an old diary and starts to write in it. She describes coming to terms with widowhood and building a new life, while looking back on her previous life.

The diary covers immediate concerns — cleaning out the house, giving away her husband's clothing, thinking about moving house — and growing into a new life — getting her husband's car back, moving to a new house, connecting with new and old friends, repelling unwanted attentions, finding a job with a library. But it is also reflective, directly and indirectly chronicling her ups and downs, facing loneliness and stumbling towards a new emotional balance. The bulk of the diary covers a winter, from October 1927 to February 1928; short entries one and five years on add an upbeat conclusion.

Bubbling up through all this, and giving it context and sense, are her memories and her reflections on memories. Memories of her husband, whom she continually imagines talking to and who was kind but repressed and repressive.

"I have often wished I could laugh, and I am certain it was what both of us wanted more than anything in our marriage, and that it would have made our life together so very much easier. Perhaps laughter might even have coaxed forth some measure of intimacy, and with it other things of which I have no conception in my present state. But I have never been capable of a quick retort. It is a weakness of mine, perhaps my greatest, and one that I cannot hope to overcome, that I so easily take offense. Not that I ever say as much. No, my offense reveals itself by slowly seeping from my voice, which is otherwise so mild."

Memories of her student life and friends, of coming to the village as a free school teacher twenty three years earlier, of her experiences teaching and the children she taught. And memories of the key decisions chance has made for her: a postal delay deciding where she went as a teacher; another accident of timing deciding who she married. This jumping around is sometimes a little confusing — and A Change of Time feels like a real diary, though it is too artful for that — but piecing it all together and working out how everything connects is satisfying, and provides some of the motive drive that makes it a novel.

Emotionally convincing as an inner journey, A Change of Time is also grounded in time and place. It is a sympathetic portrait of a small Danish country town in the early twentieth century, of its social life and its physical landscapes.

"The rectory at Thyregod is a quadrangle of farm buildings around an inner yard. Besides the priest and his wife it houses a farm boy and a servant girl of twelve years old, and the priestly couple's youngest son, a weakling who lies in the alcove spitting blood. Moreover, there is the sister of the priest's wife, who sits glumly on a commode from which she will not rise. There should also be a laborer on the farm. But it is the skiftedag, the day on which help may lawfully change employment, and the laborer went his way two days ago. His replacement, who was supposed to have come this morning, has yet to arrive. Often, new help exploit the day to attend to private matters and will first appear two or three days late. There is nothing to be done about it. People manage without."

A Change of Time is a quiet story, with relatively little drama and that seen indirectly and mostly from a distance. It is a powerful and engaging story nevertheless, a celebration of the possibilities and potentials of life.

October 2019

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%T A Change of Time
%A Jessen, Ida
%M Danish
%F Aitken, Martin
%I Archipelago Books
%D 2019 [2015]
%O paperback
%G ISBN-13 9781939810175
%P 240pp