Monday, March 9, 2020

Book Review | MISS ICELAND by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir


Miss Iceland by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir
Publication Date:  16 June 2020
Publisher:  Grove Atlantic, Black Cat
Genre:  Historical Fiction
Rating:  ★★★★★

Named after one of Iceland's most magnificent volcanoes, Hekla always knew she wanted to be a writer. In a nation of poets, where each household proudly displays leatherbound volumes of the Sagas, and there are more writers per capita than anywhere else in the world, there is only one problem: she is a woman.

She decides to try her luck in Reykjavik, and moves in with her friend Jon, a gay man who longs to work in the theatre, but can only find dangerous, backbreaking work on fishing trawlers. Hekla's opportunities are equally limited: marriage and babies, or a job as a waitress, in which harassment from customers is part of the daily grind. They both feel completely out of place in a small and conservative world.

And yet that world is changing: JFK is shot, hemlines are rising, and in Iceland another volcano erupts, and Hekla knows she must escape to find freedom abroad, whatever must be left behind. -Goodreads

The New York Times got it right, Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir upends expectations. This is my first experience reading her and the book blurb is not enough to describe this work. Winner of the Nordic Council Literature Prize and the Icelandic Literary Prize for her novel Silence Hotel, Ólafsdóttir is a force to reckon with. Her manipulation of the fragmented narrative is reminiscent of favorite laureates. Unlike most fragmented narration though, there is no blurring of the timeline in MISS ICELAND, but rather the perceptions and images are fogged. Side stories, historical information, and metaphors are provided to highlight an uncommon thought or to indicate what is broken. That rich approach hooked me from the very beginning.

Set 1960s, the story follows Hekla, an emerging novelist, who has moved from remote Dalir to Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik, to be published as a writer. In the beginning, Hekla shares her childhood friend Jon’s tiny rented room. She became witness to her friend’s struggle with being gay and victimized for it, “I don’t belong to any group Hekla. I’m a mistake who shouldn’t have been born.” Meanwhile, Hekla herself battles with being a woman and a poet in a male-dominated society. Their other friend Ísey, on the other hand, exclaims being happy as a mother and a wife, while lamenting her being a mother and a wife and not pursuing her writer’s dream. Another would-be poet is Hekla’s boyfriend, Starkadur, who bemoans that he’ll never be bound in leather. Hekla describes him as: “He uses alliteration, but no end rhymes.”
“Men are born poets. By the time of confirmation, they’ve taken on the inescapable role of being geniuses. It doesn’t matter whether they write books or not. Women, on the other hand, grapple with puberty and have babies, which prevents them from being able to write.”
I am fascinated by Ólafsdóttir’s array of diverse characters sharing their hardships. I love how they lift each other up and not exactly looking at themselves from each other’s perspective, but by feeding their own madness, crossing their boundaries, and defining their own happiness. I like the chapter headings. They are like haikus, giving the reader a warning where the story is heading. I also like how the story ended -an opportunity to put the imagination to work.

Also, praise to Brian FitzGibbon for the exceptional translation.

In a nutshell, this is a profound read for thought. It is no wonder that it won the 2019 Prix Médicis étranger. I recommend it for either personal reading pleasure or book club discussion.


About the Author:

Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir was born in Iceland in 1958, studied art history in Paris, and has lectured in History of Art at the University of Iceland. Her earlier novel, The Greenhouse (2007), won the DV Culture Award for literature and was nominated for the Nordic Council Literature Award. She currently lives and works in Reykjavik.

*My thanks to Grove Atlantic and Netgalley for the DRM in exchange for this unbiased review.
*This post is a part of the monthly linkups organized by Lovely Audiobooks! You can click here to check it out and be a part of it.


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