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 Brahmadells, by Jóanes Nielsen

Imagine a triangle with its points in Iceland, Norway, and Scotland, skewed a little closer to Scotland than the other two countries. That’s roughly were the Faroe Islands at located. The Faroes, a long time colony of Denmark and a place few have heard of, is the setting for Jóanes Nielsen’s The Brahmadells (translated by Kerri A. Pierce), a metafictional family historical saga that runs from the 1840s to the early 1990s. The family stories that make up the bulk of the novel support a variety of tangents that attempt to explicate the Faroese character. The people in this novel eat partially decomposed meat, live dangerous lives, believe strange things, and sometimes fall prey to their worst impulses.

In the 1990s, writer Eigil Tvibur (the descendant of a Norwegian soldier who was garrisoned in Tórshavn before becoming a landowner), feels that his life is falling apart. His lover has definitively left him. His political career has imploded. He is angry all the time. And his house might be haunted. I might have felt more sympathy for him if it hadn’t been for the terrible, violent rage that he inherited from that Norwegian ancestor. Eigil’s anger and sense of entitlement leads him into a series of awful mistakes. Thankfully, only the beginning and end of The Brahmadells focuses on Eigil. The rest is about the twinned history of the Tvibur family and the Brahmadella family. 

I had a lot more sympathy for Tóvó í Giel. Tóvó is a scion of a family nicknamed the Brahamadellas because of their supposedly otherworldly knowledge. We met Tóvó during a terrible measles epidemic when he’s just a boy. Because the boy’s plight (a lot of his family members succumb to the disease), a prominent doctor takes the boy under his wing. Tóvó ends up traveling across a good chunk of the Faroe Islands before heading out to sea to see the world. Eventually, he returns home and inherits a house from the man who turns out to be Eigil’s Norwegian forefather. 

The oldest neighborhood in Tórshavn. (Image by Vincent van Zeijst, via Wikicommons)

Sadly, we don’t stay with Tóvó or even get much inside this character’s head. Instead, we are treated to an often bewildering montage of Faroese history. We are treated to chapters about Danish exploitation and oppression, Faroese literature, weather, cuisine, coal mining, a failed attempt at creating a union, and more. I suspect these tangents are part of the reason why this novel was chosen to be translated into English; it offers a full meal of Faroe-ish fare, rather than just a taste. The tangents definitely explain the novel’s comparisons to Moby-Dick. Unfortunately, the book jumps around so much that it’s hard to tell who we need to focus on, what’s important to remember, and what the point of it all is. The Brahmadells also suffers from what are either typos or translation errors, or possibly both, that just put me off the book even more. This book is a shaggy dog and while I got to mentally travel to a place that fascinates me, I had a tour guide that ruined the experience with his bluster and frightening anger.

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.


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.