Saturday 26 August 2018
I thought I had the measure of Kristīne Ulberga’s The Green Crow as I took my seat in the Writer’s Retreat. Admittedly it had taken three sittings and I wasn’t yet a third of the way through, but the reading was beginning to flow, and I was ready to power through the rest. Then the chair, Nora Chassler, asked where to start. With sanity, sex, Snow White or symbolism ….
I shook my head.
“Let’s start with sex,” said Chassler. “Because it’s all about that, isn’t it?” “Yes,” replied Ulberga.
I shook my head again. Was I reading the same book? (As I was to discover later, Chassler’s synopsis is absolutely right.)
The sanity part is easy to spot, for The Green Crow is set in a mental hospital, where the unnamed protagonist tells the story of her life to her fellow inmates, Snow White and Fright. The green crow appeared to her in childhood, following the trauma of her father discovering her mother’s affair, remained by her side until adolescence, and disappeared until the protagonist became deeply unhappy in her own marriage.
The episodic scenes of her marriage reveal a rich, controlling husband. At first she revels in their love-making but as time goes by, she realised this is just sex. He makes no attempt to satisfy her other needs, “She isn’t satisfied, he’s not loving her. This love is not complete,” said Ulberga.
Her lack of self-esteem and her young twins become the chains that bind her.
I have to be miserable for my family to love me. Wonderful people are not loved; happiness is despised. I was happy once, but then all my loved ones grew unhappy.’
Cue the return of her childhood friend who symbolises the inner child, a part of her personality she has forgotten. To those looking on she begins to act erratically, in her mind she is asserting her independence and beginning to live again. This behaviour leads to the mental institution.
It’s not portrayed sympathically. “Mental health is as stupid a term as physical health.” said Ulberga, “Noone is entirely physically healthy. Why expect anyone to enjoy perfect mental health? Being sane depends entirely on perception.” In addition, this psychiatric unit is based on one Ulberga visited when her friend was receiving treatment, one where the doctors smelled of alcohol. “Medication doesn’t help,” said Ulberga. “You need to heal yourself from the inside.”
Hence the need for a friendship with the green crow.
The Green Crow is translated from Latvian by Žanete Vēvere Pasqualini. It won the Raimonds Gerkens Prize and the 2012 Latvian Literature Prize for Fiction.