Review: A Change of Time – Ida Jessen

Liselund, Denmark

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Set primarily in a small Danish parish called Thyregod, in the late 1920s, Ida Jessen’s A Change of Time (Archipelago Books, translated from Danish by Martin Aitken) contains the diary entries of Fru Bagge in the final days of her husband’s life, and the months that follow. Vigand Bagge was the region’s physician, and a seemingly very efficient and effective one, at that. It is also apparent, however, that there was more – or perhaps less – to the marriage than meets the eye.

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In Fru Bagge’s visits to the hospital, the nurse is full of stories of Vigand’s conscious hours, but these rarely seem to coincide with his wife’s visits. She appears almost numb to his absence already, and it is revealed that Vigand hid his terminal illness from her until he checked himself in to the hospital for his final days. He has made all of the necessary arrangements for her ongoing wellbeing, but shows little affection during the moments in which he is awake. Fru Bagge’s memories of her husband are of abrupt (verging on condescending) comments, reminding her of her faults and the frivolity of her behaviour, and this voice remains with her, even after his death. One wonders how she came to be married to a man who generally appears so indifferent to her, and this question lingers the more her own story is told.

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As the diary progresses, it is increasingly apparent that Fru Bagge was not always a woman who viewed herself from within her husband’s frame of reference. She came to the quiet rural community as a single woman – a qualified teacher, even – and became the first woman in the town to ride a bicycle. Her boldness and independence (likely considered peculiar, given the book’s setting) shine through in the memories that spill forth as she comes to terms with being a widow, but it is still only when former friends re-enter her life many months later that she is able to reclaim her own identity and come out from under the shadow of her 22-year marriage.

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There is a beautiful balance in the novel, between the quiet ponderings of the woman who has lost her husband, and the reflections of the formerly independent woman who is regaining her identity. With the passage of time, the latter grows in strength, highlighting both a sense of freedom and a passage through grief. The pace of the text is meandering, moving from past to present seamlessly, and capturing a quieter, simpler time than the fast-paced world in which we live today. There is a sense of quiet, and of timelessness though, that makes Fru Bagge’s experience as relevant now as it would have been in the 1920s.

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A Change of Time is a delightful piece of writing, driven primarily by an exploration of character, and the townsfolk who have come to be Fru Bagge’s friends offer simple condolences and symbolic gestures of support. They are likeable, genuine, and well-developed people, who help draw together this touching exposition on love, loss, and the human condition.

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Thanks to Archipelago Books for providing an advance copy of A Change of Time for review. It is now publicly available for purchase.

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