History. A Mess., by Sigrún Pálsdóttir

It seems deeply ironic to be reading History. A Mess., by Sigrún Pálsdóttir (and translated by Lytton Smith) only a few weeks after Naomi Wolf gave a devastating interview, in which she learns that she made a serious mistake in interpreting historical documents. Her thesis disappeared in a puff of smoke during that interview. In this brief, sometimes bewildering book, another woman makes a mistake with her primary source only to realize it just before turning in her thesis. This mistake was the basis of the entire thesis. Fixing it would mean starting all over and our protagonist has already spent six years trying to get her doctorate in art history.

Our unnamed protagonist believes that she has discovered that a semi-famous painter may have been a woman. This discovery would push back the date of the earliest known woman artist in England to the mid-1600s. In reading a diary by S.B., which is mostly a dull recounting of the artist’s daily routine, our protagonist believes that certain sentences reveal S.B.’s gender. She only realizes her mistake when she goes back to check something and can’t find the original passage. It turns out that she skipped a page because the diary was just so boring. Like Wolf’s thesis, our protagonist’s work goes up in a puff of smoke.

This mistake, we learn, is just the latest in a long line of misinterpretations and disappointments. Much of the novel requires some very close reading to figure out not only what happened in our protagonist’s life, but also what she thinks happened. The two are not always the same thing. Some readers may get a little lost if they try to read too quickly. (I found myself having to stop and re-read more than once, because I was trying to go at my usual pace.) Because I had an advanced reader copy that was a little messy, I wasn’t sure if the publishers plan to print the book with a lot of white space to help break up the text. Lytton Smith does a good job of narrating the messy, often stream-of-consciousness text as our protagonist revises her entire life. I’m fairly sure that all my comprehension problems came from just trying to read too fast.

This book wasn’t what I was expecting when I requested a review copy. I thought I was going to get a satire about how a little mistake becomes a big deal while exploring the foibles of academia. History. A Mess. is a lot more serious than that. It’s also a lot more psychological than that as it takes place almost entirely inside one woman’s mind. I would be more likely to recommend this book to readers who like unreliable narrators than I would to readers looking for an insider’s glimpse of academia. Being fond of unreliable narrators myself, I was pretty solidly hooked on History. A Mess. I’m glad I stuck this book out because the ending was brilliant, unexpected-yet-perfect, and emotionally powerful.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

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