We’re far too big for Italy. Big and white and blond, we barely fit around the table at the restaurant that evening. The furniture and interiors have been designed with trim little Italians in mind, not Dad and Håkon, both almost six feet four inches tall; not for such long arms and legs; not for us. … Ellen and Håkon squabble over the available space, suddenly teenagers all over again; I recall the way we marked the seams between the seat cushions in the back of the car, treating them as border lines. … The air around us was subject to the same restrictions. Håkon was only three at the time, but he grew up with sisters, and with clearly defined lines in the car and the tent and at the dining table – and in life in general, really – lines that laid down the ground rules.”


Helga Flatland’s A Modern Family is a quietly observed, rather lovely study of family life.

As the book opens, siblings Liv, Ellen and Håkon are in Italy, with their families, for the seventieth birthday celebration of Sverre, the family patriarch. The holiday, a gift from Sverre, is in itself ‘so out-of-character’ for him that Liv and Ellen exchange lists of brain tumour symptoms for some time afterwards. The family hasn’t holidayed together in more than twenty years and they’re disconnected, uncertain of the roles they’re meant to play. The showstopper, though, is their parents’ stunning announcement that they’re ending their marriage.

Narrated by Liv and Ellen, for the most part, and finally by brother Håkon, we witness firsthand the shock and fallout of the marriage breakup. Each sibling is left bereft by the news, the impact of the divorce trickling out to impact on their own lives, families, beliefs – and causing them to re-evaluate their relationships with one another. Liv, the eldest, withdraws, turning inwards and away from her loved ones; for Ellen, however, the divorce, while shocking, takes a second place to the pain caused by her failure to have a baby and the several miscarriages that she’s endured.

An exploration of love, loss and expectations, A Modern Family is a beautiful book, insightful, moving, thought provoking. Highly recommended.


A Modern Family | Helga Flatland | Orenda | paperback original | 21 June 2019

ePub also available

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Acknowledgements: Book text quotes © Helga Flatland 2017; English translation © Rosie Hedger 2019. This review is published as part of the publisher virtual book tour, although published later than anticipated due to unforeseen circumstances. Many thanks to Anne Cater and to the publisher for sending a book proof. Please check out the other participants on the tour. All opinions are our own. All rights reserved.


Also of interest:By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept’; ‘Permission by Saskia Vogel‘; ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised‘; ‘The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone’; ‘The beauty of Tom Cox’s personal landscape‘; ‘Call Me Star Girl’;Falling from the Floating World‘; ‘Blood Orange’; ‘Lisa Ko’s The Leavers, Dialogue’s brilliant debut; ‘We should all be feminists‘; The not-so-invisible woman: 150 greats in their own words’;RW Kwon’s The Incendiaries’; ‘Beautiful words – The Language of Secrets‘; ‘Beauty in translation – Roxanne Bouchard’s French Canadian noir‘; ‘How Penguin learned to fly – Allen Lane and the Original “Penguin Ten”‘; Dorothy L. Sayer’s Busman’s Holiday – Romek Marber for Penguin Crime (book covers we love).

Select Q&As/interviews: ‘Charlie Laidlaw’; ‘Lilja Sigurðardóttir’; ’Tom Cox’; ‘Vanda Symon; ‘Gunnar Staalesen’; Some like it hot – the joy of Carole Mortimer, award-winning novelist‘; Gina Kirkham;John Fairfax’; ‘Ian Ridley’; ‘David Stuart Davies’.


This review is © 2019 by The Literary Shed. All rights reserved. All opinions are our own. We welcome your feedback and comments. If you wish to reproduce this piece, please do contact us to request permission. Thank you so much.