Rating 4 stars
Niviaq Korneliussen’s Crimson is a novel about a group of friends in their twenties. It’s set in Greenland and it explores themes of love, anger and betrayal against a backdrop of sexual liberty, gender politics, self discovery and the effects of child abuse.
It made me glad I’m not in my twenties any more. Some things in life never change – the wish to be found interesting, the need for some excitement, the reluctance to be defined – but by god those things are felt more intensely when you’re younger.
We meet each of the five characters in turn and hear their experiences around a central critical event that changes all of their lives. As someone from the previous generation to these characters, I viewed this event with a different perspective, but Korneliussen depicts it authentically from their point of view.
Fia, the first character we meet, has been in a relationship for three years. For her, it’s starting to feel stale. She and Peter, her boyfriend, have fallen into ways of being together. He is happy. He adores her. Fia no longer feels the same, if she ever did. I started to think about how your early twenties are too soon to settle down, that you should be exploring the world, not embalming yourself, but then I thought about my friends who married a good ten years before I even met my husband and had entered into relationships that later turned into marriage in their early twenties. I thought, too, of my mum who married at 19 and had a baby at 20, married to my dad for 51 years. None of the people I know who committed to someone else earlier than I did, if they’ve felt the things Fia feels about Peter, have acted on those feelings. I remembered then that it depends on who you are on the inside that determines how you view long term commitment and when to start on that path, and for some people their early twenties can be the right time to settle down. I had sympathy for Fia, though.
Crimson is also a novel about the way love can blindside you. Fia falls instantly for Sara at a party and realises why she felt so trapped and unfulfilled in her relationship with Peter. There was an element of idealism about Fia’s falling in love with a woman that jarred with me slightly. It felt more soap opera than actual, somehow, but I wasn’t sure whether that was Fia’s extreme personality playing out or Korneliussen romanticising coming out.
Fia’s brother was a difficult character to warm to. He seems to be having a breakdown, running away from an intense situation he finds himself at the heart of, sending judgemental communications to his sister and his best friend Arnaq, writing teen angsty hyperbole in his journal.
Arnaq was the most interesting character. Hers is the most painful backstory and it feeds a lifestyle in which Arnaq is hellbent on destruction of herself and everything around her. I found her behaviour more justifiable than that of the people around her. Fia and Inuk seem self indulgent in comparison to Arnaq, who is raw and desperate in her attempts to obliterate her past. She seems to embody a negative emptiness, where the strength of pain and emotion that exists in her core is so intense that it needs to be replaced by a void. She’s also the funniest person in the book, thanks to her devil-may-care approach to life.
Ivik’s story is moving and bittersweet. She loves her girlfriend Sara but can’t bear to be touched by her. She has always felt different and always, eventually, been abandoned by friends. She desperately wants to hold onto her relationship with Sara but also recognises that something is fundamentally wrong between them. When Sara helps her to understand what it is, Ivik feels reborn. Korneliussen has written Ivik’s story with a beautiful tenderness, by far the best section of the book.
The friendship group is a tangled one. Part of Fia’s coming out involves Arnaq. Arnaq is pursuing Ivik. Arnaq also harbours feelings that might go beyond friendship for Inuk. She betrays a secret Inuk has shared with her in an attempt to impress Ivik, unintentionally instigating a crisis for both Inuk and Ivik.
Korneliussen plays with the structure of her novel, especially in Arnaq’s and Ivik’s chapters. I really enjoyed the way these characters’ compulsive text conversations were replicated on the page as phone screens rather than as paragraphs of quotation. It was visually striking and also gave an authenticity to the communications. I wished that she had done the same with Inuk’s journal entries and missives to Fia and Arnaq.
Of course this being a novel by a Greenlander set in Greenland for a Greenlandic audience, much of what it means to be Greenlandic is backgrounded by Korneliussen. Much as a British novel doesn’t explicitly explain British culture, Crimson hints at what Greenlandic culture is like. There is mention of the influence of Danish occupation of the island and the feeling I got from the novel was similar to the one I had from reading The Break. There seem to be similarities between the lives of First Nations and Métis people in Canada and those of Greenlandic people. Although occupied by the Norse from the 10th century and then by Norway and then Denmark since the 13th century, the native peoples of Greenland share ancestry with the First Nations people of Canada. Korneliussen depicts a culture that shares the troubles brought by fractured families, drink and drugs described by Katherine Vermette in The Break.
Despite the occasional dip here and there, this was an excellent read. If you fancy reading something a little different, I recommend it.