Translated by Andrew Cauthery and Björg Árnadóttir
I come in off the sea and slide along the spit, and soon I will have vanished with the mist. I am the afternoon breeze; I visit at around half past four and an hour later slip away to my dwelling, made of the past: of the grass that stirred a moment ago, the dandelion seeds that have floated to a new place, the folds of Kata’s dress as she cycles down Strandgata on her way to the village hall.
So says the wind as we are introduced to this story cycle set in the village of Valeyri, in northern Iceland. The entire span of the novel takes place during Kata’s two minute cycle ride to the village hall that afternoon. The Valeyri Choir is giving a concert and Kata, who runs the choir wants to get there early to mentally and physically prepare for the evening’s ambitious programme. She’s wearing her blue polka dot dress and cuts a picture as she cycles past all the houses waving to those she spots as she goes, and everyone sees her going by. They’ll all be in or at the concert later.
Meanwhile as she passes, we are taken into the various houses’ inhabitants life stories. They may be thinking ahead to prepare themselves for the concert, but memories from the past also surface and although they may start off as being happy or mellow, there are nearly always skeletons and secrets rattling away, and there are tales of loss and heartbreak; divorce or just being dumped, through ill health, suicide and abuse too. There is a dark underbelly to their lives and some stories illustrate many concerns of recent years to Icelanders, not least the financial crash and loss of jobs.
Village life is definitely not rosy here, yet they are all looking forward to the concert, which is something to be happy about. We’ll never get there, of course, the entire book being a snapshot of the villagers’ minds as Kata goes past.
Thorsson’s writing, beautifully translated, is very calm and often impressionistic, however, it is not without humour, plus the various bombshells casually inserted into the text make the reader pause to evaluate afresh the lives of those they are reading about. The tale of old Svenni, who remembers when his teenage years living on a farm were irrevocably soiled, strikes home in particular. Naturally, they all know each other, and yes, there is gossip, but there is also friendship, and the stories are interlinked through their village relationships. It is slightly claustrophobic in that was of small communities who live in each other’s pockets so to speak, and contrasts with the stories of those who went away to Reykjavik to study or work for a while. As many names crop up in many stories, you’re kept on your toes to keep all the names straight, even more so as most of them are known by diminutives or nicknames ending in ‘i’ – Teddi, Biggi, Gummi, Svenni and more.
I love story cycles and despite the darkness underneath, these stories show a microcosm of Icelandic life, sympathetically told, which may be writ small, but moved me big-time. Highly recommended.
Source: Own copy from the TBR. Peirene flapped paperback original, 2018, 173 pages.
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