Moonstone

moonstone

Sjón

First Sentence:     The October evening is windless and cool.

Back of the book:  

The year is 1918 and in Iceland the erupting volcano Katla can be seen colouring the sky night and day from the streets of Reykjavik. Yet life in the small capital carries on as usual, despite the natural disaster, a shortage of coal and, in the outside world, the Great War grinding on.

There, sixteen-year-old Máni Steinn lives for the new fashion – the movies. Asleep he dreams altered versions of them, their tapestry of events threaded with strands from his own life. Awake he hovers on the fringes of society. But then the Spanish flu epidemic comes ashore, killing hundreds and driving thousands into their sick beds. The shadows of existence deepen and for Máni everything changes.

Capturing Iceland at a moment of profound transformation, this is the story of a misfit in a place where life and death, reality and imagination, secrets and revelations jostle for dominance. With not a word wasted, this mesmerising and original novel is the work of a major international writer.

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Butterflies In November

butterflies+in+november

Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir

First Sentence:     This is how it appears to me now, as I look back, without perhaps fully adhering to the chronology of events.

Back of the book:

After a day of being dumped – twice – and accidentally killing a goose, the narrator begins to dream of tropical holidays far away from the chaos of her current life. instead, she finds her plans wrecked by her best friend’s deaf-mute son, thrust into her reluctant care. But when a shared lottery ticket nets the two of them over 40 million kroner, she and the boy head off on a road trip across Iceland, taking in cucumber-farming hotels, dead sheep, and any number of her exes desperate for another chance. Blackly comic and uniquely moving, Butterflies in November is an extraordinary, hilarious tale of motherhood, relationships and the legacy of life’s mistakes.

 

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The Whispering Muse

Sjón

First Sentence:     I, Valdimar Haraldsson, was in my twenty-seventh year when I embarked on the publication of a small journal devoted to my chief preoccupation, the link between fish consumption and the superiority of the Nordic race.

Back of the book:

The year is 1949 and Valdimar Haraldsson, an eccentric Icelander with elevated ideas about the influence of fish consumption on Nordic civilization, has had the singular good fortune to be invited to join a Danish merchant ship on its way to the Black Sea.

Among the crew is the mythical hero Caeneus, disguised as the second mate. Every evening after dinner he entrances his fellow travellers with the tale of how he sailed with the fabled vessel the Argo on the Argonauts’ quest to retrieve the Golden Fleece.

A master storyteller, Sjón seamlessly blends seafaring yarns of the ancient world with the manners of the modern age.

Quote from the book:

Had the perfidious termagants murdered them in their sleep and were they now planning to send us without captain or helmsman out on to the barren sea where our ship would founder like an insignificant louse in the blue beard of mighty Poseidon?

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Heaven and Hell

Jón Kalman Stefánsson

First Sentence:  The mountains tower above life and death and these houses huddling together on the Spit.

Life and death is what it’s all about in this magnificent novel. I’d never heard of Jón Kalman Stefánsson before and just picked this up on a whim. After reading Sjón’s wonderful From the Mouth of the Whale I was in search of more Icelandic goodness and I’m happy to say this didn’t disappoint. It is set in a remote fishing village and follows Bárður and ‘the boy’ as they go out fishing  one morning. When tragedy strikes at sea, the boy is left bereft and decides to abandon the village to return a book to a blind old sea-captain who lives over the mountains. When he reaches this new village he realises he is not alone in suffering and begins to see the world as a slightly less harsh place. Make no mistake though, it is an extremely harsh existence the boy has, his mother, father, brothers and sister have all died and from beginning to end his trials are depicted through the most glorious prose-poetry by Stefánsson . The whole story puts me in mind of Halldór Laxness with its emphasis on solitude and independence and the constant struggle for survival. When I finished this book I put it down and just sat for a while. I think a passage towards the end of the book would indicate that this is a good thing:

Silence after a long narrative indicates whether it has mattered or was told for nothing, indicates whether the narrative had entered and touched something or just shortened the hours and nothing more.

This book does a lot more than just shorten the hours. (Keep reading for more quotes.)

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From the Mouth of the Whale

Sjón

First Sentence:  I was on my way home from the hunt.

From the Mouth of the Whale is a great, baffling, enjoyable book. It is mainly concerned with Jónas Pálmason who has been exiled from his native Iceland for blasphemy. The year is 1635 and Jónas  is secluded on a small island off the coast, with only his thoughts and memories for company. He is ‘a lighthouse at the edge of the world’. It is a great book because Sjón is a poet, a wonderful writer who has a unique way with words. The book instantly drags you in. The power to be found in this book is in the language, and how it transports you to another place entirely. When Jónas is talking to the sandpiper in the opening scene you can’t help but be captivated. Jónas himself can relate to this feathered creature and even sees himself mirrored in the bird’s behavior. They are both writers of sorts:

Yes, strutting sandpiper, your footprints in the sandy beach are your handwriting; thus you write your ephemeral tales and reports of what you have seen on your short-winged travels…

Just as Jónas himself has written, and travelled. It is a baffling book because  it is set in a surreal environment and Jónas as a narrator is something of a rambling raconteur. It is hard to differentiate fact from imaginings, actual events from fabricated memories. Everything that follows the opening scene with the sandpiper maintains a lyric quality and Jónas’ story is reflected in the harsh, unforgiving Icelandic landscape. It is a novel to be savoured page by page. And that’s what makes it so enjoyable. Any book with a passage like this is worthy of your time:

Yes, there you have it, whether you are high-born or lowly, a stout figure or a whip-thin emaciated wretch, when your time on Earth is over you will be nothing but a sack of skin, emptied of its contents: the soul will have departed and without it you will be nothing but a leather bag of bones.

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