The Girl Between: A Novel by Lisa Strømme

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“My own temptation got the better of me, and the grip my mother held on my conscience once again began to slip.”

Inspired by Edvard Munch’s painting, The Scream, Lisa Strømme has conjured a tormented love affair between Edvard Munch and an Admiral’s daughter, the beautiful Tullik Iheln. Johanne Lien is the eyes and ears of the story, hired to work for the Iheln family as a housemaid, her strawberry picking days are limited. A budding artist at heart, drawn to Edvard Munch’s presence and gift, with an affinity to his wandering loneliness, she becomes privy to the desire Munch and Tullik let devour them. Johanne’s mother shares the opinions of most people, that the paintings of Edvard Munch are like a disease, medical doctors said they cause illness and it’s filth! Johanne loves nothing more than painting and has an artist’s soul. She often sneaks to paint with the complicated artist. Where others despise him, she cares deeply for the tortured man.

Soon, she is forced to shirk her chores, duties and accompany Tullik on her trysts with the much older artist, one whose ‘name is like poison, salt on a wound in this family’ after something shockingly illicit happened in the past. This only makes him more desirable to Tullik. The lines between hired help and friendship blur as Johanne covers for the illicit affair, herself hungry for the desires and freedom Tullik’s status in life affords her. As she escapes her duties, she finds herself angering the rest of the ‘help’ in the home. Johanne has her own lover, in a young man named Thomas and enjoys moments of passion, but is unable to sink into the moment, her mind focused on keeping Tullik’s name free of any smears.

Johanne was once an artist’s inspiration herself, when she was a young child. Known as The Strawberry Girl from a painting, inspired by her real life strawberry picking, she has been a part of the art world since she was a little girl. It’s no mystery why she is passionate about painting and drawn to Munch, who is an outcast himself. His mind fascinates her. The story touches on what captures the eye of painters, be it poverty, common folk, working class or beautiful wealthy sirens like Tullik. Could Munch’s secret love affair have inspired his famous painting, The Scream? Munch kept so much of himself hidden, he carried a heavy sadness and a life of many losses, evident in his paintings. Could love have caused a howling torture in his soul? Tullik drives herself mad with the paintings he gifts her, unsure if the woman in the paintings is really her, or someone much closer to her in looks. Through her obsession and insecurity, her youth robbing her confidence, her pampered life is obvious. Johanne is a friend and yet, there are moments when Tullik reminds her, coldly, she must do as she is ordered, for she is nothing but a maid! There are boundaries the help must never cross, Johanne knows it’s dangerous to get too comfortable within the family. Yet, their friendship outlasts even love, in the end.

Strømme has researched thoroughly, and though this is fiction, she has used facts to create a curious love story. Could it be? Artists bleed on their canvases, art is an expression of their inner lives, sometimes as loud as a scream or as erotic as the touch of moonlight on a beautiful woman’s skin. I’ve been to an exhibition of Munch’s work, and having seen his paintings Strømme’s Edvard seems to be exactly as I would imagine him. Fiction about real people is a heavy task, sometimes people get it wrong, but not Strømme. I felt a part of his world, for a short time, and could well imagine how being shunned must have felt, how he had to paint, regardless of the foul things people said about him and his work. But too, I was able to be in both Tullik and Johanne’s shoes, though vastly different, one pampered, the other hard working- both have constraints upon them, simply for being women. Was Tullik terribly spoiled, absolutely but wealth and prestige can be a prison cell too and can we blame her for her attitude, when she is a product of the world she belongs to? What’s worse than being unable to embrace your true nature, explore what the heart wants, be it art or a man? Rich or poor, all women had a common obstacle, and that’s being a woman. A lovely, sensual historical fiction.

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