After a somewhat harrowing start to my WITMonth reading, this week I have two novels from Pushkin Press which I found much easier-going. That’s not to say they are the lightest of reads though, as they deal with serious themes: trying to carve a space as a female artist in a patriarchal society, and bereavement.
Firstly, Miss Iceland by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir (2018, trans. Brian FitzGibbon 2019). Set in the 1960s, Hekla is young woman named after a volcano, who leaves her remote town to move to Reykjavík in the hope of realising her dream of becoming a writer.
The story begins with her coach journey to the city as she attempts to read Ulysses in its original language (quite an undertaking even when it’s written in your first language):
“How many pages would it take to overtake the tractor if James Joyce were a passenger on the road to Reykjavík?”
This witty and serious woman also has to fend off the attentions of an older man who says he can get a place in the Miss Iceland contest:
“We’re looking for unattached maidens, sublimely endowed with both clean-limbedness and comeliness”
Bleugh. Hekla is not remotely interested. She goes to stay with her schoolfriend Ísey who is married and has started a family, a situation about which she seems conflicted:
“I didn’t know it would be so wonderful to be a mother. Having a baby has been the best experience of my life. I’m so happy. There’s nothing missing in my life. Your letters have kept me alive. I’m so lonely. Sometimes I feel like I’m a terrible mother.”
Ísey wanted to write too and her sections have a lovely phrasing and style. There’s no doubt she has talent but her choices have been made and at this moment in time they preclude writing. Hekla is much more single-minded, but she may struggle to get her voice heard as much as Ísey, because their society does not favour independent-minded female writers.
To pay the bills Hekla takes a job as a waitress at the Hotel Borg. The more experienced staff tell her tales of female staff getting fired because of the attention of male customers, and which stores have backdoor exits she can use to escape if she is followed.
Ólafsdóttir effectively demonstrates how the patriarchy supresses men too. Hekla’s best friend is Jón John, who is gay and sees his prospects for a happy life as being fairly hopeless. He is used by men for sex before they return home to their wives, and while he wants to be a costume designer the lack of opportunity means he fishes on trawlers:
“The most handsome boy in Dalir told me he that he loved boys.
We kept each other’s secrets.
We were equals.”
Miss Iceland isn’t a bleak tale because Hekla is so resilient, and I’ve probably made it sound much sadder than it is. Jón John is a very forlorn character who really moved me, but Hekla is pragmatic to the point of detachment. She is entirely honest with her boyfriend, failed poet Starkadur (a reference to Cold Comfort Farm?) that her interest in him is purely physical. In this way she reminded me of another fictional artist, Margery Sharp’s Martha.
Despite Miss Iceland being told from Hekla’s point of view, in some ways I finished it in a similar position to Starkadur, feeling quite distant from her as a character. Ísey and Jón John are much more engaging. However, I think that is clever writing on the part of Ólafsdóttir rather than a flaw in the novel. Hekla is a writer, she has that slight detachment when she is with people of only wanting to get back to her typewriter.
“In my dream world the most important things would be: a sheet of paper, fountain pen and a male body. When we’ve finished making love, he’s welcome to ask if he can refill the fountain pen with ink for me.”
Miss Iceland ends with a two major pragmatic decisions about how to navigate a society which will not allow free expression of who you are. It’s not optimistic but nor is it defeatist. It is frustrating though, which I think was exactly the point.
Secondly, Learning to Talk to Plants by Catalan writer Marta Orriols (2018, trans. Mara Faye Lethem 2020). I spend a lot of my working life talking about and dealing with grief, and I thought this was an excellent exploration of one woman’s first year grieving for her partner.
Paula Cid is a neonatologist who loves her job. Her partner Mauro has been killed in road traffic collision.
“I often think and speak of Mauro using the adverbs before and after, to avoid past tense.”
What no-one knows is that Paula and Mauro had been going through a tough time in their relationship, and the day he died he had told her he was leaving her for a younger woman.
“You liked to buy me shoes. I never told you but I wasn’t crazy about the ones you chose for me….They were shoes for a woman who didn’t have my feet, or my style that wasn’t really a style. They were shoes for a woman who wasn’t me.”
Paula was such a well-realised character, I really liked her and I really liked the fact that she didn’t always behave well, even though she was a fundamentally decent person. She throws herself into her work, which is not entirely commendable despite how vital her work is. She is a bit of a pain to her colleagues. She is not always easy with her father and her friends. She resents any suggestion that her grief is similar to anyone else’s:
“My pain is mine and the only possible unit for measuring or calibrating it is the intimacy of everything that compromised the how. How I loved him, how he loved me. How we were, uniquely, no longer us and, therefore, how I could uniquely grieve him.”
Reasonable, I think.
What I also liked is how Learning to Talk to Plants didn’t skirt round the issue of sex. Paula is in early middle-age, she is not ready to renounce her sex life, even though society thinks it an unseemly way for a grieving woman to behave:
“Pleasure that appears just four weeks after losing your partner forever feels too bold”
However, Learning to Talk to Plants is not about Paula’s relationship with men, or even with Mauro. It is about her relationship with herself, about taking the time to nuture herself, and rediscovering hope, however abstract:
“You said talking to plants was a private, transformative act, an act of faith for those who don’t believe in miracles. I get up, take a breath, and add to my list: Learn to talk to plants.”
Learning to Talk to Plants skilfully avoids cliché, mawkishness or sentimentality. I did feel sorry for those plants though…
To end, one of the younger members of my family has been channelling Axl Rose in her attire this week, despite having no idea who he is (probably for the best). Here is the Postmodern Jukebox version of Sweet Child O’Mine: