My rating: 5 of 5 stars
What a beautiful and complex book. It takes in themes of nationhood, the role of parents and grand parents, heroes and the complexities attached to being a creative person.
The book works in a funny, meandering way where we learn a lot about the people of Iceland in the form of stories told by our protagonist, all the while we get to know our protagonist slowly across the span of the novel.
Álfgrímur the protagonist feels like a stand in for the novelist himself (and for this reader) someone who has a creative spark which he doesn’t quite know how to harness or whether he should or can harness it at all. He builds up a complex relationship with Garðor Holm, a world famous singer from humble beginnings in Reykjavik. Garðor becomes a mentor of sorts as well as a bad example. His worldwide fame is not as pure as he lets on. When he visits Iceland he continually misses concerts and events in his honour. You are left wondering whether he can sing at all, whether instead the whole thing is a ruse. In the book he only sings a handful of times. A heartbreaking exchange nearer the end of the book nearly had me in tears on the train, all about how much Garðor had to struggle to become the artist he was.
I loved the world of this book, it had the completeness of an fantasy world. The narrative voice had shades of magical realist novels like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude, but everything in the book was plausible and grounded within a reality, nothing quite stepped into that other world of magic.
Like all great novels it leaves you with unanswered questions. We wonder off and on for the whole book who the protagonist’s birth parents are, but in the end this doesn’t matter. The relationship Álfgrímur has with his adopted grandparents is a beautiful and the location of Brekkukot in the novel is very important and evocative, a sort of tavern where travellers come and go, some stay forever, some go there to die.
There was a lot about what it was like to be Icelandic before they gained full independence from Denmark in 1944. This sense of the ruling class being Danish and their use of language to distinguish themselves as the civilised people compared to the Icelanders was fascinating, and a story sadly recognisable in many other nations in the world.
A beautiful introduction to Icelandic culture, the humour of the people and the struggles of living in that world, as well as the trials of being someone who could escape.