Of course, the thing about short story collections is that they’re varied, and this one is no exception. Readers expecting trolls and fairies and heroic sagas should be forewarned: there’s very little of that here. In fact, the first several stories don’t take place in Iceland at all, but in sunny places like Sardinia and LA. And the stories that are set in Iceland are much more about the everyday experiences of ordinary Icelanders than they are about twee magical creatures. So readers looking for something cutesy and fantastical are likely to be disappointed: this collection reads much more like the dark and gritty fiction coming out of the rest of the Nordic countries than it does some pre-conceived notion I might have had about the land of geysers and lagoons.
Which is not a complaint, as there’s plenty high-quality and interesting fiction here to enjoy. Rather than elves, it’s relationships that form the main concern of most of the characters, and readers are likely to be able to recognize the same frustrations that the characters experience. Perhaps more alarming than the absence of magic is the absence of overt signs of the vaunted Nordic gender equality: boyfriends and husbands are still controlling (“Self-Portrait”), self-centered and ungrateful (“The Most Precious Secret”), and unhappy about sharing the housework, not to mention violent (“Laundry Day”). Sad, but I suppose we all still have a long way to go.
What the collection does have in abundance is the the moody menace one would expect from Nordic noir, seen perhaps most brilliantly in “Travel Companion,” a story about a relationship gone sour in which death is omnipresent, and it seems that perhaps the wife has murdered her husband, or the husband her wife, or…what really happened after all? And then there’s the guilt of accidental murder in the delightful “Scorn Pole,” in which set builders on a movie become angry when their turf house is disparaged for not being authentic and they use the set to hold a drunken scorning rite. Perhaps the darkest and yet most uplifting and poignant story of the collection is “Killer Whale,” about the father trying to do the right thing for his terminally ill daughter. The overall effect is not all sweetness and light, obviously, but it’s a fascinating plunge into a culture that here in the US we think we know, when in fact we don’t. And as each story is quite short, as is the whole book, this collection is a good way to dip in and out and sample different writers and styles.
My thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for providing a review copy of this book. All opinions are my own.