A MODERN FAMILY by Helga Flatland | Blog Tour Extract | #AModernFamily

Published by Orenda Books
Translated by Rosie Hedger
Ebook and Paperback (13 June 2019)
276 pages


When Liv, Ellen and Håkon, along with their partners and children, arrive in Rome to celebrate their father’s seventieth birthday, a quiet earthquake occurs: their parents have decided to divorce. 

Shocked and disbelieving, the siblings try to come to terms with their parents’ decision as it echoes through the homes they have built for themselves, and forces them to reconstruct the shared narrative of their childhood and family history. 

A bittersweet novel of regret, relationships and rare psychological insights, A Modern Family encourages us to look at the people closest to us a little more carefully, and ultimately reveals that it’s never too late for change…

The Norwegian Anne Tyler makes her English debut in a beautiful, bittersweet novel of rich insights and extraordinary perception, as a family drama creates a quiet earthquake…


The Alpine peaks resemble sharks’ teeth, jutting upwards through the dense layer of cloud that enshrouds Central Europe as if the creature’s jaws are eternally prepared to clamp down. The mountaintops force the wind in various directions, pulling at the plane from all angles, and we’re so small here, all in a row, the backs of the heads in front of me shuddering in unison. More than half the population on the ground below us believes it’s OK to raise a hand to their children, I think to myself, and for a moment my eyes seek out my own children; but they’re hidden from view, seated four rows in front of me. Beside them, Olaf rests his head against the cabin wall. In front of him I spy Ellen’s blonde hair, and between the seats I can see that Mum is sleeping, her head resting on Ellen’s shoulder. Dad wanders along the aisle between the rows of seats, wearing his new Bose headphones around his neck. Did he wear them to the toilet? I feel a warm flicker of affection and smile at him, but I fail to catch his eye. He sits down beside Håkon, and I catch only glimpses of Dad’s face, his high cheekbones and the tip of his nose, which has a faint blue hue about it from the glow of the laptop in front of him. They could be anyone. We could be anyone.

It’s raining in Rome. Everyone is prepared for it; we’ve been checking the forecast every day for the past three weeks, and we’ve discussed it on the phone and via text message and in our family Facebook group, reassuring ourselves that it doesn’t matter, that it’s April, and April brings unpredictable weather, plus it’s bound to be warmer than it is in Norway, and we’re not going for the weather, anyway. Even so, the mood at Gardermoen Airport, which was bathed in spring sunshine and close to a balmy 20°C, was noticeably better than it is at Fiumicino Airport, where it is 13°C and raining. The mood may also have something to do with a sense of anti climax, an acknowledgement that the tension and goodwill with which we greeted one another at Gardermoen has dwindled over the course of the flight; the first leg now over and done with, everybody’s shoulders have relaxed ever so slightly.

Having the others here, even at the airport, makes me feel intruded upon. I try to catch Olaf’s  eye, to seek some confirmation that he feels the same; Rome and all that surrounds it, everything that belongs to it, is ours. Walking through the arrivals hall feels different this time; I don’t exhale in the same way I do when Olaf and I are here by ourselves, I don’t feel that same frisson of excitement. But Olaf is busy buying train tickets for everyone, and I lament my own ingratitude, my self-absorption. I make up for it by picking up Hedda, kissing her nose and asking if the plane’s shaking scared her. She squirms free, no doubt hyper after munching her way through the biscuits and chocolate that Olaf wasn’t supposed to deploy in anything other than an absolute emergency.

We’re due to spend two days in Rome before leaving for Olaf ’s brother’s house, which is located in a small town on the coast. Two days is both far too brief and far too long a stay, I think to myself for the first time, and I see both my own little family – the one I’ve created with Olaf – and the one that I’ve come from, with new eyes.

Dad turns seventy in four days’ time. Last year, during his birthday meal, he called for silence and announced that the following year’s birthday gift to himself and the whole family would be a holiday – his treat. We could go anywhere, he declared, turning to Hedda, who was four years old at the time: ‘We could even go all the way to Africa!’ The idea itself, the manner of its announcement and his almost frenzied disposition in the months leading up to that night were so out of character that Ellen sent me lists of brain-tumour symptoms on a daily basis for quite some time afterwards. It’s probably just a reaction to the fact that he’ll soon be turning seventy, Olaf said. But Ellen and I were having none of it: he’s not the kind to make a fuss about his age. He’s always poked fun at people who create a crisis when their birthday comes around – the kind who compensate with over-the-top reactions. They’re using their age as an excuse, he’s always said. They’re really making a fuss about something else. 

But Dad didn’t seem ill, and he didn’t seem to be in the midst of any kind of crisis. And our  concerns about him weren’t so overwhelming that they outweighed our pleasure at being treated to a holiday, so Ellen and I let it go.

We haven’t been on holiday together for what must be twenty years now, not since the days when the concept of ‘family’ extended no further than Ellen, Håkon, Mum, Dad and myself. Occasionally we’ve ensured that our stays in the family cabin have overlapped, with Mum and Dad and Håkon, and maybe even Ellen, staying on for an extra few days before Olaf, the children and I are given the run of the place, but this kind of trip – an organised pack-your-bags-and-off-we-go kind of trip – we haven’t embarked on since I was in my early twenties, and Ellen and Håkon and I found ourselves piled in the back of a rental car in Provence.

I don’t recall us being quite so distant back then, not like we are now. Moving away from Oslo and out of the house in Tåsen, leaving behind the familiar framework, with its fixed patterns, conversations, gatherings, places at the table, it’s done something to the family dynamic; nobody knows quite how to act, how to adapt, which role is theirs to take. Maybe it also has something to do with the fact that we’re three adults on holiday with our parents; we’re half grown, yet still their children.

The Africa idea was quickly vetoed – by everyone but Hedda, that is – and it was actually Olaf who suggested Italy, saying that we could stay in his brother’s house there. Olaf is careful never to find himself in anybody’s debt, and the thought of Dad paying for a holiday for him and his children very quickly became too much to bear. You can’t offer him money, I said when Olaf suggested we pay our own way, it’d be condescending. Liv and I really want to show you the Italy that we’ve come to know, Olaf told Mum and Dad. Perhaps we could combine that with your seventieth birthday celebrations?


Helga Flatland is already one of Norway’s most awarded and widely read authors. Born in Telemark, Norway, in 1984, she made her literary debut in 2010 with the novel Stay If You Can, Leave If You Must, for which she was awarded the Tarjei Vesaas’ First Book Prize.

She has written four novels and a children’s book and has won several other literary awards. Her fifth novel, A Modern Family, was published to wide acclaim in Norway in August 2017, and was a number-one bestseller. The rights have subsequently been sold across Europe and the novel has sold more than 100,000 copies.

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