Island

Title: Island (original title: Ø)

Writer: Siri Ranva Hjelm Jacobsen (translated by Caroline Waight)

Publishing House: Pushkin Press

Date of Publication: June 24th 2021 (first published August 2016)

Rating: 5 stars

‘’She stands with her back to the low copse of planted trees, looking down the mountain to the village, blue in the August night, and the sheep that are like stones among unbroken glass. Further off, the sea is sleeping. Vags Fjord is still, blue on blue against the sky above the ruler-straight horizon, string taut between the headlands, a line only ghosts and legends can walk.’’

A young woman travels to the Faroe Islands with her family. A sad occasion becomes the trigger for contemplation and questioning. Why is it that we feel the need to ‘’return’’ after we have ‘’departed’’? What makes a land a ‘’home’’? In what ways do our ancestors and relatives define our past, present and future? How is our identity constructed through the changes between the generations? Primarily seen through Marita’s eyes in the past and her brilliant granddaughter in the present, this is a family – and a nation’s – journey from Tórshavn and Copenhagen to every corner of the mystical, mythical Faroe Islands, beautifully written by Siri Ranva Hjelm Jacobsen.

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‘’That weekend I told myself I’d been born in Vagar, in Gasadalur, one morning with the rain. I wanted some germ in me to have arisen here and to belong, part of the stone, the green air.

 Around the little cluster of houses that make up the village are the mountains. The clouds. Further out the valley ends abruptly. It hovers, balancing above the sea on a thunderous waterfall. Sheer steps lead from the edge of the valley to the breakers far beneath. We saw no tourists. The valley was ours, the birds’. Deep and silent.’’

Raw and haunting right from the start, its non-linear narrative urges us to discern the links between the past and the present and the evolution of the relationships as eras and generations change. In exciting, lyrical and quietly profound prose, our narrator searches for the people that have influenced the course of her family, their motives behind their choices and actions, their loves and failures and achievements. Through wars and secret (and not so secret) rivals, through aspirations, convictions and rituals, the culture and identity of the Faroe Islands come to life, the harsh landscape merging and defining the lives of the people, depicted in beautiful paragraphs such as this:

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‘’Fritz raises and drops the line. He doesn’t believe the tall tales he’s been told and tells the village children in his turn. The sea witch. The sea ghost with its overlong thighs, which creeps onto the beach and sits shrieking on the rocks. All he wants is to be the contraction and measured release of his muscles. His pumping blood. His frozen beard. Those stories are for scaring children; they belong indoors. Not here, in the wide open unknown.’’

Stories of witches and phantom whalers, of the hulder folk and the myths about the islands, tales of the stories and the moss, of the mists and the fjords, of floating islands and secretive places like Mykines, of the festivities of Midsummer’s Eve, in the scorching wind and the midnight sun, a woman is trying to explore questions of identity and belonging in a contemporary, lyrical Norse Odyssey.

Beautifully translated by Caroline Waight.

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‘’Outside, beyond the black curtain, the roads are dead; they die every night. Marita can’t get used to the black-out – that’s the one thing. The dogs are growling, an obtrusive sound, a rumbling now, and hoofs trampling; the barking of the dogs rises to the roar of engines above the roof. She curls up underneath the bedclothes. The sound of the low-flying huntsmen drifts onwards over the city.

  The houses are like submerged rocks appearing out of the blackness, not recognizing each other. The Dog King’s horse is white as a searchlight. A solitary stare. She knows it.

 At night, when the war puts out the light, every house in the city is like hers, a submerged ghosts, a drifting island.’’

Many thanks to Pushkin Press and NetGalley for the ARC in exchange for an honest review.