Short in length though dense in its social subtext and references, Agnes Ravatn's latest genre-transcending novel The Guests narrative-wise leans on diachronic collective ills devastating the subject in today's status-driven societies. The protagonist and sole first-person narrator, Karin, a forty-one married woman working as a lawyer, is a textbook case of (a) a neurotic individual, struggling against the primordial sense of inferiority when compared with people higher up the food chain. Her husband, Kai, is a carpenter and tends to see life through a simpler, yet not entirely uncomplicated, perspective and he is inescapably charged with the quotidian minutiae, hardships, and obstacles that the family has to face. We follow the plot's developments exclusively through Karin's eyes, entrapped within her fragile, erratic frame of mind that often digresses and transforms into self-deprecating scrutiny and loathing. In her own words: "The dissatisfaction that comes from comparing myself with others was more my cup of tea".
The story commences when Karin accidentally meets an old nemesis from her childhood, a woman named Iris who never missed the chance to make her feel like a lesser human being. Iris asks Karin for legal advice regarding a professional dispute and the protagonist reluctantly gives it. As a form of payment, Iris invites Kai and Karin to her vacation cabin in the outer Oslofjord. Of course, things are not as simple as they initially seem and Karin is certain that Iris's invitation is nothing but a show-off, exhibiting her abundant wealth to a couple who make ends meet by their work but they are frozen out by the upper financial echelons of Norwegian society. During their first days in the cabin, Kai and Karin meet their neighbors a married couple of popular authors, Per Sinding and Hilma Ekhult. The latter is Karin's favorite author and she is fazed by the potential to sit and have a talk with her one-on-one. However, the couple's complexes rear their ugly head and they are introduced to the authors' dyad as a man and a woman being at the pinnacle of entrepreneurial activity. This white (?) lie will have several consequences and the days left in Oslofjord will offer valuable lessons to the eternally jittery Karin.
The Guests is not an easy novel to categorize according to the genre: it's not a thriller, however, the plot structure and the confined setting unavoidably create a form of tension, it's not a crime novel per se as there is no crime featured, except for the lying on behalf of Kai and Karin, it resembles what is commonly called a literary novel but readers who are familiar with Agnes Ravatn's work should keep an open mind in respect to that matter. The author offers precious insight into critical complications of the modern human condition, examining how the feeling of envy is born and its vile consequences for the individual and those around him. Throughout the novel, Karin can't shake off the feeling of worthlessness that renders her so weak as to impersonate another person in order to feel equal to those whom she admires. Ravatn weaves a fast-paced story, the limited number of pages (172) adds to that affect, featuring several twists and turns with the most subversive one reserved for the finale.
The Guests is a little gem of a novel that solidifies Agnes Ravatn's reputation as one of the most promising new voices in Norwegian literature today. I want to thank Orenda Books and Anne Cater for inviting me to this blog tour.