Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

My review of the Icelandic novel The Greenhouse (by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir and translated by Brian FitzGibbon) is published this week at Necessary Fiction. This was an intriguing book – the kind of writing and story that grows on you as you work through its pages and story. By the end, I loved it. Here is a little of what I had to say about it:

As signaled to the reader in the very first pages when Lobbi and his father, in the midst of preparing his farewell dinner, go back and forth about his leaving, about his accidental fatherhood and what it means to be going away from his child and the child’s mother, and with the subtext of Lobbi’s mother’s death between them at every moment, the biggest question in The Greenhouse revolves around the possibility of meaning in coincidence:

Dad doesn’t believe in coincidences, or at least not when it comes to major events in life such as birth and death. A life doesn’t start or end out of pure chance, he says. […] Dad looks on these things differently; the world is a cluster of numbers that hang together, making up the innermost core of creation, and the interpretation of dates can yield profound truths and beauty.

Words like coincidence and accident fill the book, as do the possible examples of each: Lobbi’s mother dies in a car accident, Lobbi’s child is conceived accidentally after a party, and even the least important story, of Lobbi’s damaged twin brother, gently re-phrases this same question of the coincidence or destiny of someone’s birth.

Interestingly, Ólafsdóttir works these questions through the narrative while keeping the reader in the shadow of the monastery. There are no overt religious discussions—no direct wondering at God’s hand in all these accidents—but instead there is place, there is the infrequent glimpse of a monk in his robes, there are moments of wonder inside a church.

You can read the rest of my review of The Greenhouse here.

Ólafsdóttir has a more recent book out in English translation, Butterflies in November, (this time with Pushkin Press), that sounds very good as well.

Thinking about it, she might be the first Icelandic author that I’ve read – is that possible? It seems I should have read something Icelandic somewhere along the way… There were a few things I wanted to write in my review about how the language felt, but without having read more examples of Icelandic in English translation, I didn’t feel confident making any real statements.  Does anyone have any suggestions? I know that I would like to read Sjón, since so many people whose reading tastes I trust have spoken so highly of his work. But who else should I be adding to my list?

5 Responses to “Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir – The Greenhouse”

  1. Anne K.

    An intriguing review of an intriguing book. To answer your question: the most celebrated Icelandic author is Halldór Laxness, who won a Nobel Prize in Literature in the 1950s. His most famous work (at least internationally) is INDEPENDENT PEOPLE.

  2. Scott W.

    This comment is only about three months late, but I just read your review of The Greenhouse and much appreciated it. A couple of years ago I read and reviewed the French translation, Rosa Candida, and found it a stand-out novel from my reading that year, a luminous work that succeeds despite the many ways it might have been sucked down into syrupy kitsch. There’s an interview with the author somewhere in which she speaks of her interest in medieval and early Renaissance painting, and the book takes some of its aesthetic conception from such works.

    I second the recommendation of Independent People. A more recent Icelandic work I liked is Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s Heaven and Hell, the first part of a trilogy.

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