Friday, May 21, 2021

Reading log: Miss Iceland, by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir

Was it three years ago that Jason convinced me to read Hotel Silence, an Icelandic novel by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir? It was one of those books that gets passed from bookseller to bookseller. Then, despite little national attention, you turn around and you've sold 250 copies.* It's the story of a town devastated by war, a visitor devastated by life, how connections between the two can help create meaning and purpose. 

I learned that Ólafsdóttir's next book was coming out in 2020 and was suitably excited, well aware that is rare for lightning to strike twice for an author. Not that the book can't do well, but this idea of getting so many booksellers on board is a stretch - it's the five reads phenomenon. If we hit that plateau and the reads are good, there's a good chance we can make the book work if we focus on getting the word out.

But that doesn't mean the follow up will work as well. The book might not be as good, or it can be great but so different in style that it doesn't naturally connect to the same audience. I'm getting the vibe, for example, that folks who loved Leonard and Hungry Paul might not take to the next book, which is called Paneka. 

Or sometimes you just drop the book behind a bookcase for a year. I was cleaning my office/guest room/nonfiction library/to-be-read staging area for my sister Merrill's visit, and I spotted it - my copy of Miss Iceland that I bought last June. Like Hotel Silence, it has a pedigree - it won the Icelandic Booksellers Prize (I'm not really sure how many booksellers Iceland has - could there be a Milwaukee booksellers prize?) and the Prix Médicis étranger, an award that recognizes a foreign novel translated into French. Past winners have included Anil's Ghost, by Michael Ondaatje, The Mars Club, by Rachel Kushner, and Dave Eggers's What Is the What. The newest winner is Antonio Muñoz Molina's To Walk Alone in a Crowd, which comes out from FSG on July 13. The point is that this is a major prize. 

Where Hotel Silence is one of those books where time and place are not really referenced, Miss Iceland is very time and place-y: Iceland in the 1960s. Hekla is a young woman who leaves rural Dalit for the big city of Reykjavik after the death of her mother. She has two friends - Ísey, who struggles with her role as wife and mother, and Jón John, who hoped that the city would allow him to find a boyfriend and live a life as a costume designer, only to find that the best he can do is find work on fishing boats and find married men in the shadows. 

For Hekla, the struggle is not writing itself - stories and poetry and essays pour out of her. Getting published is the problem, particularly since the market for books in Icelandic is pretty small. She finds work as a server, but she must regularly fend off inappropriate comments and advances. One particularly determined gentleman wants to enter her in the Miss Iceland contest - hence the book's title. 

She finds company with a poet, but it turns out that leftist sympathies, mostly expressed in bars with his buddies, do not rule out misogyny. She writes in secret with Jón John while the poet complains that she doesn't cook for him. Will Hekla move past this? Will Jón John? Yes, but I'm not sure the resolution will bring either peace. It's not that kind of book.

Did you ever find that two books spoke to each other? As I was reading Miss Iceland, my brain kept coming back to Lily King's Writers and Lovers. Like Miss Iceland, it's the story of a woman in a particular time and place (Boston in the 1990s) struggling to become a writer. Both characters must work through grief from the loss of their mothers. Both must deal with toxic restaurant jobs, and confront unsupportive boyfriends. I really think a book club would love reading these two books together or in succession. 

So would I recommend Miss Iceland? Absolutely, particularly (and this is not as unusual as you would think) if you are planning a trip to Iceland. It's such a different story from Ólafsdóttir's last book, but shares its same dreamlike style, and it is once again deftly translated by Brian FitzGibbon. I'd also really love to get it into the hands of people who loved (and a lot of folks did) Writers and Lovers, to see if these readers felt the same cosmic connection. Will we sell 250 copies? Alas, no. I blame the bookcase. 

*the actual number is 248, but we've done pretty well with it as a second-hand copy so I'm not stretching the truth here. 

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