Writer: Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir (translated by Brian FitzGibbon)
Publishing House: Grove Atlantic
Date of Publication: June 16th 2020 (first published November 2018)
Rating: 5 stars
”If I die
Leave the balcony open!”
Farewell, Federico Garcia Lorca
Hekla is a child of the 60s. A young woman full of talent, wit and kindness, a writer, an idealist. An intellectual in a society that tries to take the next step, to open its mind and its heart, to stop discriminating between the ”feminine” and the ”masculine”. But it is hard. It is hard to live by your own rules. It is hard to be a part of a society that believes you’re ”whining” when all you do is state your views and shout to the high heavens. It is hard when your face overshadows your brain. It is hard when women are vicious, judging your every step. And no, things haven’t changed.
Hekla was named after a volcano.
”Besides, some of the stars are long dead, Hekla. The light takes ages to travel.”
In a mesmerizingly beautiful novel, Ólafsdóttir creates the story of a young woman who doesn’t let a man, any man, dictate her life and her choices. A hymn to true friendship and the communication between souls, an honest, brave view on the oppression from the ones who think they have the right to parade you around as if you were a shiny trophy. Pseudo-intellectuals, wannabe-poets, self-proclaimed progressive leftists who are worse than the fiercest patriarchy zealots. ”Oh, hey, we don’t want Capitalism, but sure I want to be famous. But not for me, for the good of who-knows which ”People’s Republic of…’’ I’ve known this lot since my university years. I punched two of those in a students’ faculty gathering that aimed to force us on one of their ”strikes”. They went to the hospital with broken noses and less hair on their empty, ugly heads, having understood how a capitalist (and I will remain one until I die!) woman, student of the faculty of English Language and Literature (and History) defends herself against manipulative idiots. Good times…
”Some night watchers watch over nothing but the stars.”
The theme that takes Hekla’s story into the realms of literary perfection is the deep love for reading and the need to express yourself through writing that ooze out of every beautiful page. The obsession with books that shape our personality, our views, that makes us who we are. Do they prepare us for the world outside? Yes and no. There are beautiful references to poetry and the fascinating Icelandic literary culture. It also provides the finest background for the depiction of the difficulties that must be overcome when a woman wants to become a writer. Hekla, in the 1960s, faces the same obstacles, the same irrational, sexist criticism that her 19th-century peers had to put up with.
”Then the July nights arrived, warm and silent. All days pass, all moments vanish.”
I loved the writer’s commentary on the notion of beauty icons, the ideal image of ”femininity” during the 60s, the ridiculous, distasteful parade of ”beauty” contests that are nothing more than glamourized prostitution. Womanhood, vulnerability. The society’s demand for ”husbands and wives”, the hostility from women who have sided with the dominants, jealous of those who refuse to become one more piece of meat available in the open market. And if we claim that we don’t see this in our times, we’ll show ourselves to be shameless liars.
The journey in Hekla’s search and awakening becomes even more powerful through the vivid cultural references of the 60s, the rising of new political and social attitudes, the intense homophobia, the lack of tolerance and understanding. And the characters? My God, if you don’t love them, you are more heartless than I am. Hekla and Jon-John form one of the most beautiful relationships you’ll find in a novel! And Isey, dearest Isey!
Let us not forget that Iceland is firmly connected to reading and the joy that books bring to our lives. Who isn’t aware of the wondrous customs of jólabókaflóð, the Christmas Book Flood. With a rich tradition that dates back to the Icelandic Sagas, the writers from the Land of Fire and Ice are doomed to succeed.
This is a hypnotizing novel by the exquisite writer of Hotel Silence, full of life and darkness, struggle and hope. It is real, it is Literature.
”Apart from the vault of stars the world is black.
A sentence comes to me and then another, then an image, it’s a whole page, it’s a whole chapter and it struggles like a seal in a net inside my head. I try to fix my gaze on the moon through the skylight, I ask the sentences to leave, I ask them to stay, I need to get up to write, so they won’t vanish.”
Many thanks To Grove Atlantic and NetGalley for the ARC in exchange for an honest review.