I was excited to receive a pre-read copy from Chatto & Windus of Lisa Strømme’s The Strawberry Girl and hoped the novel would be as delicious as the cover – an early colour auto-chrome photograph by Mervyn O’Gorman of his strawberry-blonde daughter Christina. As a collector of Victorian and Edwardian photographs and a lover of art of the 19th Century I couldn’t wait to read it, not without trepidation as my expectations were already high, being seduced as I was, by such promise and beauty.
From the opening chapter we step into a painting with Johanne, our young protagonist. At ten years old she was the innocent ‘Strawberry Girl’ muse of the artist Hans Heyerdahl and now at sixteen in the early summer of 1893 her life is about to change.
Asgardstrand, Johanne’s home and a picturesque village on the banks of a fjord, draws artists from across Norway with its magical light, much like the French Impressionists flocked to the coast and towns of Normandy and the South of France in the 19th Century.The most famous of these artists was arguably Edvard Munch, who to Johanne is a fascinating, otherworldly character who encourages her desire to be creative and enables her to paint. The beauty of Asgardstrand also attracts the wealthy to its shores and Johanne is employed as a maid at the summer home of a naval family, where she soon befriends their youngest daughter.
The wild and beautiful Tullik, four years older than Johanne and bored with the restraints of her position in society, is desperate to shed those confines, becoming obsessed with Munch and determined to seduce him. Johanne unwittingly finds herself in the middle of a scandalous love affair, made complicated, not only by the villager’s staunch disapproval of Munch, but by the precarious mental health of the artist and the society girl who becomes his muse.
Lisa Strømme’s novel is a delight; she brings to the page the beauty of Asgardstrand in all its sensory glory and at the same time cleverly allows us to see Munch’s work emerging from the landscape through his solitary and mentally unstable eyes. Johanne’s artistic awakening plays out alongside the mental deterioration of her friend Tullik. Johanne is a highly intelligent young girl destined for more than her background dictates, trying desperately to manage a situation beyond her control.
The paintings take on a life of their own, (more…)