Island, by Siri Ranva Hjelm Jacobsen

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.

Coastline between Beinisvørð and Vágur, on Suðuroy, near where some of this novel takes place
(Image via Wikicommons)

The Dark Blue Overcoat and Other Stories from the North, edited by Sjón

36417302The stories in The Dark Blue Overcoat are written by authors from every Scandinavian country, including the Faroe Islands. At least two of the authors are indigenous. They are also translated into English by a complement of translators. Under Icelandic author Sjón’s direction, the stories take us across the north from remote villages to cities, ethnic Scandinavians to immigrants—all with a distinctly un-hygge sense of fractures in culture and society.

Some of the standout stories from the collection include:

“Don’t Kill Me. I Beg You. This is My Tree,” by Hassan Blasim and translated by Jonathan Wright. This story features an Iraqi refuge in Helsinki who now works as a bus driver. We know him only as the Tiger and it isn’t long before we learn that he received asylum under false pretenses. In this story, the Tiger is haunted by what may be the ghost of a man he murdered in an orchard before he fled the country.

“May Your Union Be Blessed,” by Carl Jóhan Jensen and translated by Kate Sanderson. What I love most about this odd little story set in the Faroe islands is that the main text of the story—a gossipy family history full of sex—is immediately contradicted by corrective footnotes full of academic references to what “really” happened in the Ryggalt-Hermanson family. I could feel the amused smirk on my face the entire time I was reading it. Also, I am always a sucker for archly written footnotes.

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Obligatory fjord photo (Image of Geirangerfjord, Norway via Wikicommons)

“San Francisco,” by Naviaq Korneliussen and translated by Charlotte Barslund. This story moved me most. Here, Fia, a Greenlander, makes her way across the United States on a mourning journey after the death of her lover, Sara. This one of the longer entries in the collection, giving us plenty of time for Fia to reveal the shame she feels about her sexuality and her overwhelming guilt at possibly causing Sara’s death in a motorcycle accident. When Fia arrives in San Francisco, a place she knows as a safe, open city for LGBTQ+ people, there’s a small glimmer of hope that Fia might be able to become confident in her sexuality.

Some of the stories are stranger than others. Some are distinctly poststructural or supernatural. At the end of the book, I was left with the impression that Hamlet’s Danish rot had spread across the region. There are a lot of broken families here, and a lot of alcohol abuse. Readers looking for comfort on cold winter nights should look elsewhere. But readers for whom Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen is not unsettling enough should enjoy this collection.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 9 October 2018.

The Second Winter, by Craig Larsen

Reading The Second Winter, by Craig Larsen, can be bewildering. The narrative shifts from character to character and through time. The connections between the characters are only slowly revealed and, even then, remain somewhat tenuous. I appreciated the perspective the book presented of lives sliding around each other, occasionally colliding. What made the book difficult was the constant threat of violence to Polina and the other female characters. Rape and sexual exploitation loom too large in this book.

The Second Winter introduces us to two women, separated by more than twenty years. Angela Schmidt is traveling into East Berlin to perform a concert. She plans to sneak a visit to her aunt, who got caught on the other side of the Wall, and she is smuggling something dangerous enough that the mere sight of the border guards is terrifying. Then we jump back to 1939 and over to Poland. Polina is the daughter of a Jewish mother and a gentile father. The Germans have invaded and rounded up her family. Polina only avoided their fate because she happened to be away from home at just the right time, though she doesn’t remain free for long.

We won’t know what happened to Polina or how Angela is involved until a few more characters, all men, are introduced. We meet the photographer Hermann (Angela’s father); Fredrik Gregerson, a violent amphetamine addict who smuggles Jews from Denmark to Sweden for money; Fredrik’s son, Oscar; and few others. As the narrative lurches along, connections through family relationships and stolen jewelry start to emerge. I felt, at the beginning of The Second Winter, that the book had started from too wide a view. By the end, with its climactic scenes at the Gregerson farm in Jutland, everything started to make sense.

The sexual violence, which permeates most of the beginning of the book, is hard to read. Polina suffers repeatedly at the hands of men who order her to do this or that, always for their pleasure. Worse, the scenes between Polina and the male characters are all presented from the male perspective. We don’t know what she’s thinking most of the time and, because the men see nothing wrong with what they’re doing, these scenes are terrifying. When I asked for a copy of this book, I was not prepared for this. I was expecting a tangled history revolving around the connections between the characters.

The Second Winter is skillfully written but, because of the particular type of violence, I can’t recommend the book to many readers. Any recommendation would come with a strong trigger warning.

I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 27 September 2016.

The Prophets of Eternal Fjord, by Kim Leine

Explorers and missionaries must be the most stubborn people on the planet. Explorers are firmly convinced that there is something out there, something that must be found. Missionaries, sometimes explorers themselves or in the second wave of colonists, seek to reshape what and who were found so that it looks more like what was left behind. Morten Pederson Falck is one of the latter. Greenland was discovered (more than once) centuries before he heard of a missionary position in a Danish colony on the western coast of the island. Most of Kim Leine’s The Prophets of Eternal Fjord is centered on Falck, but the book is about the people of Greenland—Inuit and Danish—and how the country was shaped and reshaped by its waves of settlers. Falck’s story is grafted on to real history, so skillfully its hard to say where the joins are.

After a brief, disturbing prologue that will only make sense after reading most of The Prophets of Eternal Fjord, we meet Morten Falck as he arrives in Copenhagen in the early 1780s. His father has sent him from their small settlement north of Christiania (later Oslo) to train as a clergyman. Flack would much prefer to be a physician—anything other a clergyman—and spends much of his time at dissections and sneaking into lectures. This changes when he falls in and out of love with the daughter of his landlord. After failing to commit to Miss Schultz, Falck finally commits to being a priest (Lutheran, not Catholic). He barely graduates before signing on to go to Greenland.

The clergy is the only thing Falck doesn’t eventually abandon. (He tries anyway.) This is the great failing of Falck’s life. Over and over again, he angers, renounces, betrays, or leaves the people he used to love and who might have loved him. If Leine didn’t occasionally hand over the reins of narration to other characters—Falck’s catechist, his lover, a constable, and other characters—I don’t know that I might have been able to finish.

Greenland itself also kept my attention. I asked to read this book mostly because of the setting. Years ago, I read Judith Lindbergh’s The Thrall’s Tale, set during an earlier failed attempt to setting the eastern coast of Greenland around the year 1000 C.E. I remember the book as relentless misery. Centuries later, Danish colonization was more successful, though illness and famines kept things pretty harrowing for anyone choosing to live there. Falck comes close to death more than once and there’s a sense that everyone is hanging on by the skin of their teeth. The fat times are not that fat; the lean times are very lean indeed.

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Hans Egede’s eighteenth century drawing of Thule whalers

The title of the book comes from two Inuits, a husband and wife, who took the Christianity they learned from the Danish missionaries and set up a commune in the early 1780s. (Leine mentions the sparse, but real, historical records of the pair.) By preaching and trading without Danish oversight, Habakuk and Maria Magdalena drew the ire of the colonists. Their community at Evighedsfjord (Forever Fjord or Eternal Fjord) was destroyed. Falck (fictional) spent a few short years at Eternal Fjord, experiencing a religious revelation before its destruction.

Destruction is a recurring them in The Prophets of Eternal Fjord. Falck’s peripatetic wandering around Greenland, Denmark, and Norway just as events turn for the worse makes him seem like a victim. Falck might be pitied if it weren’t for his inability to appreciate the love of the good women he finds. Any sympathy I felt for him evaporated when he abandoned yet another woman.

What sticks with me about this book is the sense of enduring stubbornness in many of the characters. The Inuit people are enduring the Danish, as if they know that the colonization attempt can only be temporary. They just need to wait out the pale foreigners. Falck’s nemesis, colony official Jørgen Kragstedt, is waiting for Falck to make a fatal mistake or die—either is an acceptable outcome. Falck spends most of his years in the Sukkertoppen settlement marking time until he can go back to Denmark or Norway, except when he lives at Eternal Fjord. All of the conflicts in The Prophets of Eternal Fjord come from characters butting heads and refusing to back down.

The Prophets of Eternal Fjord will upset readers. There is a lot of violence, sexual abuse, racism, and deadly explosions and fires. Still, I was able to see the beauty in Leine’s exposition about the stark landscape of Greenland. The descriptions of food being eaten after a long hunger sent me scurrying to my own kitchen. And, through it all, I kept hoping that Falck would find a place and a woman he loved enough to settle down. Even in the harshness of late eighteenth-century Greenland, there is always the hope that next time will be better.

I received a free copy of this ebook from Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 13 July 2015.

Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Prescribe this book to readers who have too many “first world problems” or are prone to whining.