In the glowing, absorbing novel A Blessed Child, the past and present intertwine as three sisters converge on their childhood home on the Swedish island of Hammerso. They are going to visit their aging father, Isak Lowenstad, a temperamental gynecologist who developed the use of ultrasound and is considered a pioneer in the field. To the sisters, he was a larger-than-life figure, strict about outdoor time, dinner time and his daily working time where he allowed no interruptions. His three daughters, by three different women, were sent to the island each summer, and their memories are a powerful force in their lives.
Erika, the eldest, and unsure about the visit, tries to persuade sisters Laura and Molly to join her. None has been back for many years. Erika recalls those summers of her youth: Isak's bellowing, and her boyfriend Ragnar, 13 like herself, who smelled like Coca-Cola and the sea and was ugly and handsome at the same time. They shared the same birthday, developed a secret language and hung out in Ragnar's secret hut in the woods.
Ullmann's tale brings the past to the forefront. Erika can't help but recall the summer of 1979, the cruel levity of the island's adolescents and her ultimate betrayal of Ragnar. Molly remembers preparing an elaborate dinner for Isak - who didn't show up. Later in life, she "often made speeches to her father in her head . . . maybe the rage, the silent fury would strike her one day, as it had the others." Never far from their thoughts and behavior as adults is the tragic figure of Ragnar and that summer that marked them forever.
Ullmann, daughter of Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullmann, is well respected in Norway and has had her other novels translated into many languages. She calmly evokes the beauty of the island of Hammerso - heath, gnarled trees, vivid red poppies and silver-gray sea - as well as the meanness of adolescence and the ambivalence of grown daughters for their distant father.
Steve Dykes is a writer in Cambridge, Mass., and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.
A Blessed Child
By Linn Ullmann; translated by Sarah Death
Knopf, 320 pages, $23.95