I’ve never had a chance to use this word in earnest, but I’m glad that somewhere I learned the untranslatable Welsh word hiraeth so that I could use it for my review of Siri Ranva Hjelm Jacobsen’s magical novel, Island. If you drop the Wales-specific part of its definition, hiraeth means something like a blend of nostalgia, longing, and yearning for a place. The place in Island is the Faroe Islands and the person feeling something like hiraeth is an unnamed narrator making a trip to the islands with her parents after the death of her grandfather. But this is too simple an explanation of the book. Right from the beginning, this book is a blend of myth and slippery memory and emotion that twists around questions of belonging.
This book takes place on Suðuroy, the southernmost inhabited island in the Faroes, and in Copenhagen, in Denmark. (The Faroes are self-governing, but still officially part of Denmark as far as I understand.) And, in stark contrast to much of the rest of the book, the first character we meet is desperate to get to the mainland from the islands. So desperate, in fact, that she uses an incredibly dangerous method for abortion right before taking a boat to Denmark. We don’t know how yet, but the narrator is that character’s grandchild. It’s also a strange way to start a book in which the narrator spends so much time meditating on family and home. That said, sometimes the best way to understand something is by looking at its opposites.
The narrator—who is half-an ethnicity with dark skin and hair and half-Faroese—certainly makes use of her outsider status to observe and think. After the death of her grandfather, the narrator and her parents go back to Suðuroy and cross-cross the island visiting surviving members of the family. While her mother and her relatives chat in Faroese (which the narrator doesn’t really speak), she thinks about the many stories she’s heard over the years in somewhat mythic terms. So many relatives are known by monikers based on some important life event or chief characteristic, like many characters in the Norse sagas. Episodes in their lives are referred to with phrases that sound like the titles of stories, like Beate and the Gull or Red Ragnar and the Stone That Would Not Be Moved. But the narrator’s semi-epic retellings perhaps highlight how separate she feels from the rest of the family. Her stories about Omma and Abbe (her grandparents) are much more detailed and real because the narrator grew up with them in Copenhagen. The stories are all second- and thirdhand. Some of the relatives in them died before the narrator met them.
The narrator is meant to be a teenager, but I preferred to them of them as older given the cerebral nature of their thoughts as she avoids local delicacies like wind-dried mutton or look at the powerplant her grandfather once dreamed of working at. I don’t doubt that a teen could feel the kind of longing to belong to a people and a place seen in Island. What I doubt is their ability to express it as well as that emotion is explored in this novel. But this is my only quibble about this amazing novel. It is beautifully written. I loved how the past and the present and the narrator’s thoughts and memories were all woven together. This might sound challenging, but the contrasts between characters who wanted to leave and those who wanted to stay are thought-provoking. I was also intrigued by the way that time and distance became an unspoken wedge between people who share DNA and family history. It’s amazing what the author was able to pack in to less than 200 pages.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.