Tag Archives: Reykjavik

Quake by Audor Jónsdóttir 

I opened this book to judge whether I wanted to add it to my tbr pile. I finished it in 24 hours. I was drawn in by the opening, the mystery of the woman who knew nothing of her own circumstances. In addition, it was set in Reykjavik, Iceland, a place I had liked immensely when I visited. The country is famous for its seismic activity, and the novel appeared to make a reference to it in the title: Quake.

Quake

The narrator is a woman of about 30 whose name is Saga. The story begins when Saga comes round from a grand mal seizure, and she cannot work out where she is, or remember how she got there, or where her son is or why they are not together. She is in hospital in Reykjavik.

The quake of the title disrupts the narrator’s memory and understanding of her past and her identity. But it also refers to the upset of her life that immediately preceded a series of seizures. They have returned after a long absence since adolescence. 

Saga is very ill and even when she is well enough to go home, she must not be left alone, or take care of her son. She needs help. Her parents arrive, then her sister and eventually she employs the teenager and her boyfriend next door to stay with her. These two seem to be more organised than any of the other characters in the novel, including the medical staff.

When her mother goes missing Saga becomes less of the focus for the family which is when she finally realises that her life is difficult, indeed that she has to face up to some enormous changes. Her husband does not want to return to her, she finally understands the causes of her mother’s periodic disappearances, and her work must come second to her son and her recovery. Having understood all this she can begin to put things together for herself and for her family.

Her love of her son runs through the short chapters. Here is the moment he visits her in hospital. Saga has been afraid that he was lost when she fell.

He stands by the side of my bed. Laughter lights up his face, his golden locks. His baby teeth graze my cheek, little nips of love. Wasn’t he going to the doctor? […]
“Mamma is here,” I whisper as I breathe him in greedily, drag him into my arms, still uncertain whether it’s a dream or flesh and blood. It’s enough that he’s here, my Ívar, in this strange room in which he doesn’t fit. In which I shouldn’t fit. He should never find out how frightened I feel, stitched into this sterile landscape with hypodermic needles. (14)

As Saga gradually recovers, and talks with her sister and her parents, and the young couple who seem to have adopted her, she begins to see the world as it is, although she is tempted to continue to see it only as she wishes it to be. 

Instability – of the ground beneath your feet, or in your life – is unlikely to occur only once. But Saga is better equipped to deal with the dramas she will encounter by the end of the novel

Her name, Saga, is a reference to the cultural heritage of her country, and to the place of storytelling in creating identity and belonging. When she first has her seizure Saga loses both but regains them through retelling stories with her family and with her son.

Books and Iceland

Iceland is a fascinating country. It has a population of under 400,000, of whom nearly 125,000 live in the capital Reykjavik. It has only been settled since the 9th Century. Due to plate tectonic activities volcanoes and earthquakes are common, and the island country has many hydrothermal baths. It has some attractive traditions, including the Jolabokaflod, the Christmas book flood, the name given to the book-buying bonanza of the Christmas period. Books are Iceland’s most popular Christmas present.

I visited Iceland in February 2017 and I wrote about it on this Blog: Bookword in Iceland. The photographs in this post are from that visit. By the way, I never finished reading the Laxness.

I have read Burial Rights by Hannah Kent, a difficult story based on real events, about a woman awaiting execution in Iceland in 1829. I included it in a post called Why use real people in fiction?

Quake by Audor Jónsdóttir, first published in Iceland in 2015 by the dottir press. 295pp. The English version was published in 2022, translated from the Icelandic by Meg Matich. 

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Bookword in Iceland

Reading and travelling are both experiences of visiting new worlds. I like combining them and set about finding bookish connections when I’m on the move. I went to Iceland in February. Not my idea, but my brother is celebrating what people call a ‘big birthday’ and I said I would go with him. He hoped to see the Northern Lights. I’m up for such things, especially when I get to visit a new place. Here are some bookish reflections on my brief time in Iceland.

Strangers in Iceland

In 2009 Sarah Moss went to live in Iceland with her partner and children. She had a contract for a year with the University of Reykjavik. 2009 was the year following Kreppa, the Icelandic term for the financial crash. Kreppa ended the years of silly and false money-making in Iceland. People were suffering.

Sarah Moss is a novelist, author of Night Waking (2011) and The Tidal Zone (2016), both excellent novels published by Granta. The book she wrote about her time in Iceland is categorized as ‘travel’. It is not like any travel book I have read. It is more of a what-I-noticed-when-we-lived-in-Iceland-for-a-year kind of book. It is called Names for the Sea: strangers in Iceland. I recommend it even if you are not planning a visit.

From Names for the Sea I got the impression that Icelandic people may look and behave like other Western people, but actually they are very different. Icelandic people have sense of themselves as distinct, and what it means to be Icelandic, and a pride in their country and culture. They like the perception that theirs is the safest country in the world (1.1 murders a year are committed on average. Sadly, the week before we visited, Birna, a young girl was murdered. There were searches and a vigil and a man from Greenland has been arrested.)

Our sense of Iceland, as tourists, was that we should not be stressed. They had everything covered. Coaches and minibuses crisscrossed Reykjavik, fetching tourists from hotels and taking them on tours, information always provided about the arrangements. Even when our minibus broke down on the way back to the airport, a substitute was quickly fetched, and we proceeded with very little problem, delay or stress.

During her residence Sarah Moss found food banks, half finished blocks of flats and a poor exchange rate. We did not see the first two, but it was not cheap if you kept calculating the cost of things in £££s.

‘Icelanders knit everywhere,’ said Sarah Moss (281). The only person I saw knitting was a woman in the wool shop I visited, who demonstrated the way in which they hold their needles and wool. Icelandic sweaters and other necessary warm garments are widely available. I bought some yarn – how could I not?

I also learned from Sarah Moss that Icelanders take a coat with them all year round. In February this was not really in doubt. But in Reykjavik, we had rain and wind and the worst combination of these I have experienced this winter. But the temperature during the day never dropped below freezing. Out of the city it was another story.

Independent People

And now I am wading through Halldor Laxness’s novel Independent People. It’s a long story (more than 500 pages), an epic, about Bjartur a farmer in the desolate countryside, who is determined to become independent, who sees independence as the ultimate goal of all his labours. And labour he does, against the elements, bad fortune, hapless neighbours, the death of his first wife and a determined child. And Bjartur pays the price for his stubbornness.

Set in the early twentieth century, but describing life as it had been lived for many centuries, Laxness spares no detail of the crofters’ lives. Meetings of the men, coffee, rounding up sheep, falling into the Glacier River, the governance, relationships with neighbours … it’s all here. Especially the snow and the coffee.

Pingvellar National Park

What, I wondered, is the value of independence in an environment where cooperation and collaboration are clearly more likely to achieve desired outcomes?

Halldor Laxness, 1906 – 1998, published his novel in 1934-5. He produced other novels and translations, and wrote for the theatre. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955.

Halldor Laxness 1955

Other bookish things

I need to reconnect with the Icelandic Sagas. The shops offered a hefty and attractive Penguin edition, but it seemed crazy to add such an object to our suitcase and to pay the Icelandic price. Iceland was only settled from 870. People had lived there before, but not successfully. The inhospitable landscape and climate would put off most folks. This is the stuff of good stories.

One of the many, many tours offered to tourists was The Game of Thrones Tour. We swam in the Blue Lagoon instead.

Our hotel had a bookshelf for guests. Prominent in the collection was H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, one of President Obama’s recommendations, and one of mine.

I’m not a fan of Nordic-noir, or whatever genre in which you would include Icelandic thrillers. There are plenty.

Go to Iceland! It’s another country; they do things differently there.

Book details

Names for the Sea: strangers in Iceland by Sarah Moss (2012) Granta 358pp

Independent People by Halldor Laxness (1934-5). Translated from the Icelandic by James Anderson Thompson and first published in 1946, in translation. Available in the Vintage edition. 544pp

And go to TripFiction’s website to find other location-based fiction.

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Filed under Books, Travel with Books, Travelling with books