I had to chuckle at the start of this event regarding the recently published The Book of Reykjavik. The Icelandic moderator Halla Þórlaug Óskarsdóttir, who lives in the city said that it successfully captured a hard-to-describe Icelandic atmosphere, but she did wonder about a foreigner’s point-of-view. Well, as that foreigner, who has never visited the city, I’m not about to argue with her about the authenticity of the atmosphere, but I was surprised a how little sense of place I got reading this anthology. I understood why within about 5 minutes of the event. As a foreigner I want landscape. But as the author, Björn Halldórsson, pointed out, the majority of the anthology is set in the “dreary suburbia of Reykjavik”.
Dreary suburbia? That’s not very flattering, is it? Yet it’s almost a compliment in comparison to some of the epithets in Sjón’s foreword: the most despised place in Iceland, the Gomorrah of the North, the misshapen urban cluster at the farthest edge of Europe. I guess the tourist board won’t be employing Sjón anytime soon, but at least it served as a warning that these 10 short stories by the finest contemporary Icelandic authors were going to defy my expectations.
Let’s go back to the sense of place for moment. Reykjavik is a young city, population expanding rapidly due to mass migration from the countryside. That will explain why The Gardeners in Einar Már Gudmundsson’s tale are former farmers turned urban gardeners. Then there are high-rise buildings springing up like mushrooms in Bórarinn Eldjárn’s Incursion … until the developers go bust. It’s not explicitly stated, but I presume this to be the result of the financial crash 2008-2011. With the city spreading out into the rugged landscape beyond existing outskirts, this is one story where nature begins to reclaim some lost ground …
In Bjorn Halldorsson’s story Two Foxes, a well-off retired couple move to a new development in the middle of a lava field. But the crash again stops development and they find themselves in the only completed house. They turn it into their dream home, but their relationship isn’t what it once was. And yet, just as their isolated location lends itself to the delight of enjoying the landscape around them with surprise visits from the local fox, perhaps there there is joy to be found in unguarded moments of symbiosis between themselves.
Unlike many of the relationships in the inner city. The anthology contains a cluster of tales with unfilling relationships at their core: casual sexual encounters, one sex behaving badly towards another, long term relationships that have cooled. Reykjavikers are just like the rest of humankind. And these short stories are intense, packing some punch. None more so than Fríða Ísberg’s Home in which a young woman decides to walk home in the twilight grey hours of an early July morning. It may not be as dark as a UK early morning, but I remember well those growing insecurities, particularly when hearing footsteps behind you …
I won’t detail each of the 10 stories, because I keep interrupting myself to reread them! They are well worth it, even if not what I expected.
Comma Press, based in Manchester and a founding member of the Northern Fiction Alliance, is a not-for-profit publisher specialising in the short story and fiction in translation. It is committed to a spirit of risk-taking, and aims to put the short story at the heart of contemporary narrative culture. The Book of Reykjavik is part of the Reading The City Series.