Tuesday 25 February 2020

Book Review Independent People

Independent people by Halldor Laxness

This Icelandic novel in translation tells the story of Bjartur and his struggles to survive as a crofter in a hostile environment. Fiercely independent, he refuses help and overcomes numerous setbacks to maintain his status after living many years in servitude.
The landscape is bleak and there is a similarly bleak emotional response from the characters in this story. Ironically the First World War is greeted with enthusiasm, because for the first time, Icelandic products sell for inflated prices and provide a unique opportunity for the poverty stricken crofters to better themselves.
Sheep feature in abundance, both in good health or otherwise, and the conversation of the crofters is centred largely on their flocks. Legends and sagas are always present in the background influencing the choices  made by the crofters, and the ability to compose and recite poetry is a skill which is greatly admired.
The sparsity of good food, lack of opportunities for education, disease and premature death, and the interminable heavy work load drive this novel and the reader cannot help being moved by the desperate state of these people.
Though I found the novel hard going at times, it is peppered with beautiful passages of description which lift the reader out of the gloom.
I would certainly recommend this to anyone interested in historic Iceland . I have a much greater understanding of the stoicism of these people as a result of reading this novel.
The author won the Nobel Prize for Literature for this work in 1955 and he is one of Iceland’s most revered authors. He died in 1998.

Monday 10 February 2020

The Visible World. Book review

Book Review
The Visible World by Mark Slouka

This book, written in two quite distinct parts, documents a child’s immigrant life in New York in the first section, and imagines his mother’s wartime life in the second.

 I particularly enjoyed the childhood memoir in which there were memorable descriptive passages.
‘She had calves as big and smooth as bowling pins, and she always sat on the sofa with her legs to one side as if glued at the knees, and smelled sweet and sad, like a dusty pastry.’
‘He had a square block of a head silvered by stubble and ears like miniature lettuces’.

The author has a masterly way with words and a melodic style.

The second part I found more problematic. A son writing about his mother’s sexual encounters did not sit easy with me, though I fully understand his need to try to find the cause of her deep unhappiness with life. Despite these misgivings, my interest was held to the end.

I think the most fascinating aspect of this book is the description of the life and experiences of the Czech refugees in New York in the late 1940’s. The author skillfully draws us into his childhood. We find ourselves in a somewhat alien environment which is of course normality for the child.