A good read, the second by this author that I’ve read (the first one was Butterflies In November), read on our recent holiday in Spain (so a slight contrast in locations). It’s refreshing to find an Icelandic author who’s not writing crime and noir, although there’s some uncomfortable material here as in her first novel, and a sad bit I’ll come on to in a moment.

Audur Ava Olafsdottir – “Miss Iceland”

(16 November 2019)

In this novel we meet Hekla, an aspiring writer named after a volcano, who flees her small village to move to Reykjavik and live with her best friend, Jon John. The book is set in the 1960s, and for all the liberal freedom we think of when we consider the Nordic countries, Icelandic society is rife with both sexism and homophobia (as well as the usual accompanying dose of racism). Jon John is gay in a hyper-masculine society and he gets sick of having to play a role and jumps ship to escape to Denmark. Hekla ends up working in a hotel dining room where she’s harrassed from all sides and constantly exhorted to be a beauty queen. The boyfriend she ends up with turns out to be a dodgy stalker who can’t stand that she’s a better writer than her, and a contrast to the life she’s trying to lead is provided by her best female friend, living in misery in a small flat with a husband and small child, her only solace the big paintings of the landscape she clings to. Other role models are offered by the bitter colleague or her ex-beauty queen friend, sent to warn Hekla.

Jon John shows Hekla another way, sending her books like The Bell Jar and encouraging her writing. She is able to nurture – her friendships and the cat she adopts (alas, the cat doesn’t end well: this is sort of necessary for the plot but there’s quite an upsetting bit before the plot can continue) but she has to decide between the man and her writing.

Meanwhile, we have a fascinating backdrop – Hekla’s father is obsessed with volcanoes and writes for news of them, Surtsey erupts and forms its islands and the big church of Hallgrimskirkja is being erected. I recognised lots of street names and even a bookshop that’s still there in Reykjavik. The sagas are constantly mentioned and Icelandic literature, saga writers, novelists and poets, is discussed, honoured and mulled over. Hekla is fully able to rescue herself, yet her life isn’t able to be fulfilled yet, as she’s burning too bright, too early. Will she find a way out and will Jon John offer her a hand up out of the sexist pit she’s found herself in?

It was fascinating to read about a time in Iceland I knew nothing about, newly independent and trying to carve its own way in the world but expecting people to buckle down and fulfil their gender and heteronormative roles.

This book is published on 16 June 2020.

Thank you to Grove Press for making this book available to me via NetGalley in return for an honest review.