About a month ago, I reviewed the first book of my Nordic winter reading challenge – Halldór Laxness’s miserable Icelandic epic ‘Independent People.’ Since then, I’ve had a wonderful time reading my way around Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland. It feels only fitting to conclude by returning to my original location; albeit with a very different kind of novel. Though set a century ago, ‘Moonstone’ is a consciously modern look at Iceland’s past. In contrast to ‘Independent People’ it’s short, cosmopolitan and ambiguous; a wonderful introduction to contemporary Icelandic literature.
As an indication of the novel’s tone, ‘Moonstone’ begins on October 12th 1918 with a boy giving an older man a blow job on the edge of town. Neither is named, and the anonymous act is accompanied by the throbbing of customised motorbike. Immediately after, the rider of the bike appears in a striking pose against the volcanic sky, Sóla G – ‘a girl like no other,’ a femme fatale straight from silver screen. The story which follows will be equally modern, industrial and ambiguous, marrying meticulously researched period details with a magical air of near-unreality.
The fluidity between the real and the hyper-real is masterfully rooted in actual history. Thus Sóla G – ‘appears on the brink like a goddess risen from the depths of the sea, silhouetted against the backdrop of a sky ablaze with the volacnic fires of Katla‘ (Katla errupted in 1918). Then, within a very few pages, the devastation of Spanish flu renders all other plot threads suddenly un-dramatic and irrelevant. Towards the end of the novel, the ceremonies around Iceland’s independence from Denmark become a comedy of errors implicating more characters than you might first expect.
For all of the bleakness of the period and subject matter, ‘Moonstone’ is ultimately a love story. A love story for movement and modernity, for freedom and for illusion. While the less pleasant sides of such ideals are never hidden, the calm delight of the boy who discovers them shines through. A massive thank you to Lisa Hill at ANZ LitLovers LitBlog for recommending this book so highly in January. I’m adding my voice to hers in recommending you seek out this unexpected and extremely powerful story.