I decided not to read up in advance about the subject of My Men, the woman know as America’s first female serial killer, as I felt that I wanted to appreciate the novel as a work of creative fiction without having any previous knowledge of what turned out to be shocking real events. The story, however, does not offer forensic details of the crimes, not until the very end. Instead, it glides in and out of deeply unsettling emotions, the Norwegian author, Victoria Kielland, painting a (fictional) picture of a damaged, troubled and desperate woman who descends into amoral madness. There are no explanations or justifications, here, just a raw portrait and a meditation on mental illness, female desire and loneliness.
We will never know what really went on in Brynhild Størset’s head and how external events affected her life. But this novel suggests that a combination of emotional turmoil and physical yearnings, combined with a strong religious upbringing, shaped a personality that was unable to find inner peace. We get glimpses of the desperation and cruelty that culminated in horrendous crimes, of the humiliation and submission that triggered a desire for power, to take God’s will into her own hands. However, we’re also told that Bella’s (Brynhild’s) ‘only wish was to find some balance, find someone who could hold her, someone who loved her unconditionally’.
It’s 1876. Størset, seventeen years old ‘and in total panic’, is a lonely hard-working girl in rural Norway, and is unable to quiet her conflicting feelings of happiness and shame when the son of the rich farm owner visits her every night. Initially she doesn’t understand the complexity of her mental state, yet she does realise that an end to the intense affair is coming soon. The inevitable pregnancy results in cruel treatment and miscarriage, and soon afterwards an escape to America in the hope of finding freedom, acceptance and understanding. In Chicago, she finds little support from her disapproving sister and has an overwhelming sense that she is broken. Moving to the Midwest, marriage to the kind and loving Mads Sørensen and fostering three small girls fail to bring her fulfilment. Belonging and simple happiness seem unachievable.
Then Peder Gunness appears, and Bella soon ends up with two marriages and the suspicious deaths of two husbands under her belt. Widowed yet consumed by desire, Bella Sørensen-turned-Belle Gunness wades on through life, writing personal ads in newspapers, and inviting – even enticing – men to share her life and her home. Men who long for a loving relationship and a normal family. Men who then vanish.
The language of My Men is visceral, hauntingly poetic and brutal. Kielland and Searls’ spellbinding words create a world of strong passions, extreme loneliness, and fear of the past and the future. The harsh living conditions in the American countryside and Bella’s belief in what she considers her godly mission create a sense of doom. Trapped in her deeply upsetting thoughts, I had the sensation I had entered a dark Norse universe, with its unforgiving deities:
‘where God left her freezing cold against the draughty wall, where everyone got sick and caught fevers and drowned in the vicious white snow. There was no mercy here, no forgiveness, only cold and rot and mice in the walls.’
The intensity and manic urgency of the prose captures Bella’s constant state of fear: ‘reality is like death, it catches up with everyone eventually.’ And: ‘everything given to her could also be taken away, she knew that, she truly bore the punishment for every shameful thought.’ Damion Searls’ superb translation of Kielland’s hypnotic prose stays with the reader. My Men is not an easy read but absolutely worth making the effort to try to understand a killer’s warped state of mind.
Reviewed by Ewa Sherman
by Victoria Kielland
Translated by Damion Searls
Published by Pushkin Press (2023)
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Ewa Sherman is a writer, translator and critic. She studied Polish Literature and Language, and Law, and worked with the Polish media. She’s translated several books of sonnets written by her mother Krystyna Konecka from Polish to English.
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