Niels Frederik Dahl (66) writes lyrically about loneliness in the novel “Daddy’s Back.”
The title “Daddy’s Back” carries a heavy layer of associations with it. Thoughts move quickly toward safety, stability, and support—but Nils Friedrich Dahl’s latest novel revolves around themes of loneliness, isolation, and uncertainty.
The narrator in this book relies on fragments when writing his father’s story, which are also fragments from the life of Niels Friedrich Dahl’s father: photographs, stories, letters, and memories.
The narrator then dictates, more or less freely (it is difficult for the reader to know where the memories stop and the dictation begins), and where the parts are shortened. The result is a tender meditation on the longing to belong.
Dahl had previously written about the mother figure in a similar narrative form, in Mor om natten.
In “Father’s Back” we meet John, or “Father” as the narrator constantly calls him, who is the son of the Judge and Ellen.
When John was five years old, in 1926, the young family moved to Alexandria, Egypt, where the judge also served as a judge. In Egypt, Elaine homeschools John, thus creating a very lonely childhood for “Father” and an adulthood for Elaine.
The parents decide to send the boy alone to Stabekk when he turns thirteen.
The love between mother and son is beautifully described, but there are also constant signs that they have become overly dependent on each other.
A mother goes on crazy trips after realizing her son will return home to Norway. In the same way, the “father” begins to make endless journeys himself, returning to a homeland that does not really seem like a homeland at all.
“Father” doesn’t seem to belong anywhere, he’s never had a friend and he doesn’t get one in Norway either.
The lack of parents, especially the mother, is enormous, but the connection is small. When he thinks the judge will finally bring him to them, before he turns fifteen, only the father is sent to a new boarding school. This time in Geneva.
“Stabekk was new, but not foreign. Geneva is foreign, but not new. To a father, it may not matter what places are called, what languages they speak there. To him, they are exactly the same and just an extension of themselves.
Wherever the father is in life, the narrator describes new aspects of being an outsider.
The book does not always move chronologically, but rather jumps back and forth between fragments of the father’s life.
Father’s Noon is always a sad book, but during his years in Geneva, 1936-38, Dahl also wrote some wonderful sequences about his father’s early friendships. But then the inevitable war comes, tearing these and other new friends apart once again.
The narrator delves into his father’s upbringing and often returns to places and events. New sources create new angles, but in some cases they are considered somewhat repetitive.
Dahl writes equally lyrically about a “father” stumbling toward adulthood, and about longing for community, parents, and belonging.
The Return of Father is a beautiful, simple book about loneliness, which makes for truly thoughtful reading.
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