Review by Paul Burke
Publisher: Comma Press August 2021
ISBN: 978-1910974032 PB
Part of the Read The City Series
Translators: Victoria Cribb, Philip Roughton, Lytton Smith, Meg Maitch, Larissa Kyzer.
Foreward by Icelandic author Sjon
Not every good story coming out of Iceland is a crime story, as these ten short tales emanating from Reykjavik prove. Reykjavik, the writing capital of the world, is the latest city to feature in the Reading the City series from Comma Press. Mostly these are intimate tales of loss, love and regret set against the backdrop of the city’s cultural and physical landscape. So personal stories reflect big themes, urbanisation, changing lifestyle and environment, the contrast between city living and rural small town culture and inward migration from the rest of the country. There are those who see the simpler rural village existence as a purer way of life because it is more closely connected to the land, sea, ancestry and community and some of these stories pick up on that, but also the danger of nostalgia and harking back. As a growing city of 200,000 people (that’s more than half the population of the island), Reykjavik’s citizens face modern problems; isolation, anonymity, uncertainty. These issues bleed into the stories. Contrary to what you might have gleaned if you are a reader of Icelandic noir, the weather is not an obsession nor a threat. In these stories it’s not a defining factor in the make up of the city at all really, perhaps that’s more of a rural issue where it shapes lifestyle. Here’s a flavour of the stories:
Island by Friðgeir Einarsson is about a man returning home to Reykjavik for the first time in years for the funeral of his mother. He’s been gone long enough to be rusty in his native tongue, feeling the dislocation as soon as he arrives. The radio in the taxi on the way from the airport proves he is completely out of touch with the local issues and, even, the way of debating them. Distance gives perspective, but is it a case of absence makes the heart grow fonder or a confirmation that there’s nothing left for him here?
Keep Sleeping My Love by Andri Snær Magnuson. A husband wakes, gives his wife a tender kiss and leaves the bedroom to dress to avoid waking her as he gets ready to leave. For the first time since they have been together he will go alone to the Grótta lighthouse with its perfect view up the Snæfellsjökull glacier on the one day when the sun sinks directly into the crater of the volcano. This is no longer an anniversary they will share. If his wife asks why he didn’t bring her, he has an answer ready. A musing on long-term relationships and the nature of mature love.
‘My mind was aimlessly wandering; there was a weight on my chest. I wanted more than anything to slip the most beautiful word in your ear but I couldn’t.’
Home by Frida Ísberg. It’s 3.14 am when the young woman decides to walk home. Perhaps her best friend, her wing-woman, left with a man earlier in the night, or, maybe, her drinking buddies dispersed to their own homes after a big girls’ night out. Maybe she’s drunk or she wasn’t drinking at all but enjoying the atmosphere and it just got late. This woman could be any woman who’s experienced the fear of a night walk alone. At first the roads are well lit, well travelled but that changes the closer she gets to home. Does a man coming the other way present a threat, she remembers that girl who was attacked a few years ago. A musing on the uncertainty of urban life, of being alone, of misogyny and feeling vulnerable.
This is a fine anthology of tales that illuminate the character of the city, urban identity, the complications of life, dysfunctional relationships, second beginnings, looking for love and the impressions of the past.
Reykjavik is a city of readers, where one in ten is also a writer. I leave you with this heart warming thought. Every home in Iceland gets a catalogue every November of all the books published in the country that year, then they can buy each other books for Christmas.