For the last leg of my Nordic journey I’m again reading slightly outside my comfort zone, having just finished Land of Love and Ruins (tr. Philip Roughton) by the Icelandic author and activist Oddny Eir. I’ve always been a bit fascinated by Iceland (I lived on a treeless, arctic island myself for a brief period, albeit one on the other side of the world), drawn at first by its history and culture, and later by its great natural wonders. For Annabel’s #NordicFinds month, which gave me the perfect opportunity to indulge my interest, I wanted to read a contemporary work addressing current issues, so no Halldór Laxness! Because I had just read a Scandi-Noir by the Finnish writer Antti Tuomainen (and have another lined up for my stopover in Sweden) I also decided to avoid mysteries and thrillers. Land of Love and Ruins seemed to fit the bill perfectly. Eir’s debut novel, written in the form of journal or diary entries, has won both the Icelandic Women’s Literature Prize (2012) and the EU Prize for Literature (2014). It is the only one of her works to date that has been translated into English
Before launching into more details about my very interesting selection, I should note that I read Love and Ruins (LAR) not only for Annabel’s #NordicFinds Month but also for the European Reading Challenge sponsored by Rose City Reader. You can imagine my delight when I realized LAR also tied into the #ReadIndies Month sponsored by Kaggsy and Lizzy, as it’s published by Restless Books, “an independent, nonprofit publisher” (quote taken from publisher’s website). After years of being totally hopeless at choosing books that meet the criteria for multiple challenges and events, I have now managed to do so for the second time in a month. Gentle readers, I am on a streak! Recommendations for lottery numbers, anyone?
Given the strongly autobiographical tilt of her work, knowing a little about Eir’s life is a bit more helpful than usual. Something of a renaissance woman, Eir was born in Iceland in 1972, and educated there and at the Sorbonne, where she received an advanced degree in political philosophy. In addition to writing poetry, essays and four novels (including Love and Ruins), Eir is known for her environmental activism and has also worked at various times as a museum lecturer, a promoter of art events and a gallerist (according to Wiki, she and her archaeologist brother currently run a publishing company). Prominently mentioned in all of Eir’s biographical information is her work as a lyricist for the pop star Bjórk on two of the latter’s albums; the keen-eyed among you may have noticed in the photo beginning my post that the front cover of Love and Ruins displays Björk’s endorsement.
Love and Ruins (LAR), as I previously mentioned, is the journal of an ostensibly unnamed young woman returning to Iceland after some time abroad. Although its publisher refers to LAR as an “autobiographical novel” rather than a memoir, it was hard for me to shake the impression that I was reading an actual journal rather than even a lightly fictionalized account; for this reason and for sheer convenience, I’m going to refer to the first person narrator simply as Eir. The journal begins on notes of personal and national uncertainty — returning home, Eir is tentatively beginning a new romantic relationship against the backdrop of Iceland’s economic crisis created by the collapse of its banking system in 2008. In the course of this quasi-novel, Eir spends time with her birth family, especially her archaeologist brother (nickname “Owlie”); details her developing relationship with her new lover, an ornithologist she refers to as “Birdy;” and travels. And travels some more. From one apartment or house in Reykjavik to another; from Reykjavik to outlying villages, towns and historic spots around Iceland; to and around England (primarily the Lake District but also London, Manchester & Worsley); and to Basel, Strasbourg and Paris. The numerous house moves and journeys, which are largely undetailed, are merely triggers for Eir’s personal memories or the framework on which she hangs her thoughts on questions large and small. These range, for example, from questioning the nature of family structures, to proposing sustainable ways to adapt old traditions to a changing environment, to wondering whether the neighbor she observes shopping at the same time every day is buying all that popcorn for herself “or for everyone else back at her retirement home.” (page 98)
I faced a number of barriers in reading this novel, some due to my own idiosyncrasies and some to Eir’s. Just as I’ve never been a big reader of memoirs and autobiographies (not to mention letter collections), I’ve also largely avoided diaries or journals. Given my prejudice towards the format, it’s obvious that a work of fiction written in the form of a journal was going to be challenging for me. In keeping with its journalistic structure, LAR moved rapidly from thought to thought, incident to incident, place to place, with few transitions or explanations, leaving me a little behind at times or at least wishing for a few notes beyond the scant four-page glossary provided at the end of the book. Eir is obviously a poet and writes with a poet’s sensibility; this can be very beautiful but also a little confusing at times, especially when combined with her penchant for assigning nicknames of animal or ornithological origin to practically everyone in her account (in London, for example, Eir (page 166) goes “to say hello to a porcupine, sharpening its snout in doubts” before visiting the bookshops). Because Eir is interested in how Icelandic traditions can provide a model for a new, environmentally sustainable life she delves into the history of her own family, particularly her grandmother’s; while a pilgrimage to the areas in which they lived and the land they had farmed provided a lovely structure for raising questions about Iceland’s transition from an agrarian culture to a tourist playground, I became lost at times in the welter of Eir’s family relationships. Eir begins each short section of her novel with a heading that is some combination of the Old Icelandic and Church Calendars, a geographic location or indication of the section’s content; for example (page 105):
Start of Góa or is it Skerpla?
Being mildly obsessive-compulsive, I experienced a certain amount of stress trying to determine the exact dates of particular “journal” entries and with trying to impose a chronological structure on Eir’s observations and memories.
Between one thing and another, I seriously considered abandoning Love and Ruins somewhere between pages forty and fifty. But then, gentle readers, I just — relaxed. I began to enjoy the humor, whimsy and sometimes history in the chapter headings; and realized it didn’t matter very much if I confused her friends Eyowl & the squirrel or got the grandmothers mixed up. In short, I simply started to listen to what Eir had to say and to appreciate the frequently beautiful way in which she said it. It’s hard to select one example from among the many contained in the novel, but I found the following (page 52) to be profoundly moving, although I’m not at all conventionally religious:
I think that in the housing of the future, there needs to be a little healing nook where you can lie down as if under the grass or down in the ground and let the earth restore you. Then rise up. Christianity is perhaps first and foremost an admonition to ground yourself so well that the light can play around you without burning you up, an admonition to connect with nature, turn to the dust each day and rise up from the dust, transcend the laws of nature with help from the laws of nature. You mustn’t bury yourself alive, forget to rise up, or bind yourself to the dust in melancholy surrender.
Love and Ruins is a physically small book containing big themes, reflected upon by an original mind and expressed in intuitive and poetic language. What constitutes a family? Is it possible to be in a loving relationship while maintaining one’s personal autonomy? If so, how can it be structured? What happens when a country no longer can sustain growth or the earth support the burdens we humans place on it? How do we honor our history while moving to the future? Although Eir raises these questions in the context of an Iceland in transition, they apply universally. If you are a reader who needs a conventional plot and/or character development, or demands clear and unambiguous answers to profound questions, then you should look elsewhere, Love and Ruins is not the book for you. But if you’re willing to bend a little bit with the details and go where the current carries you, it has much to offer.
Before departing, I should say a bit about the publisher, since I also read Love and Ruins in conjunction with #ReadIndies month. Restless Books is a U.S. independent publisher physically located in Gowanus, Brooklyn (a borough of New York City). Beginning in 2013 as a digital only publisher of international literature, by 2014 Restless Books had expanded into print by partnering with Simon & Schuster for international distribution. Dedicated to publishing work that speaks across “linguistic and cultural borders,” its publications include practically every genre from an equally wide array of countries. Although I wasn’t consciously aware of Restless Books before this year, I was a little surprised to discover I actually have a couple of their other publications among my towering stack of unread books.