Book Reviews

Miss Iceland by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir | Book Review

Happy Icelandic National Day! 🇮🇸

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Iceland in the 1960s. Hekla is a budding female novelist who was born in the remote district of Dalir. After packing her few belongings, including James Joyces’s Ulysses and a Remington typewriter, she heads for Reykjavik with a manuscript buried in her bags. There, she intends to become a writer. Sharing an apartment with her childhood and queer friend Jón John, Hekla comes to learn that she will have to stand alone in a small male dominated community that would rather see her win a pageant than be a professional artist. As the two friends find themselves increasingly on the outside, their bond shapes and strengthens them artistically in the most moving of ways.

This book wasn’t really what I expected, but now that I go back and read the summary, I realise that I probably went off the path a bit, imagining things that weren’t really there. It’s a fast read (I read it in about 2 sittings), and what is most remarkable about it is that it doesn’t even really need to be set in the 60s. It’s a nice aesthetic, sure, and if it was set in any other time period (such as a more recent one), some of the more quirky details would be lost, but the story itself could be a story happening today, which I thought was really interesting.

The main character, Hekla, begins her story by leaving her small town for the “big” city, and dreams of becoming a writer in a society and atmosphere that is dominated by men. She begins to room with her gay best friend, Jón John, who only wants to be a designer but is stuck in the life of a sailor, surrounded by gay men who always return home to their wives. Eventually she finds herself a quiet librarian/poet and moves in with him and his other poetry circle peers. They’re both writers, and she, unbeknownst to him, is more successful, but struggles knowing that it probably wouldn’t be true if she published under her own name instead of a male pseudonym. Hence, why she struggles to publish her novel now, as herself. She works in a hotel café where she is forced to wear a skirt and where all the older men tell her that her life is a waste if she doesn’t compete for a beauty pageant and run off to Long Island with a creepy chaperone for a life of subjection. Eventually, with the help of a friend who struggles with being a young mother and fears she won’t amount to much, Hekla decides to leave her boyfriend, her country and her life and rejoin Jón John in Denmark, who left on sailor’s duty from Iceland and escaped that miserable existence by simply not returning to the ship one day. They live and create together in beautiful harmony, finally living the life that they both left Iceland to chase. They get married to cheapen the costs of travelling together and presumably continue to chase the dream of writing and designing and living happily ever after doing what they love. Eventually, Hekla (named after a volcano that her father loves more than her, which is presumably why she wants to make a name for herself instead of literally living under the shadow of a mountain) finishes her novel, essentially based on her life (albeit with a few aesthetic changes) and gets a chance to publish it – also under a pseudonym, but at least this time it’s a female one.

You can see how it feels like a timeless story: wanting to leave the small, constricting environment you grew up in, wanting to explore everything there is to see in the world and finding freedom, but also facing more restrictions because the things you want are against what society dictates as proper. Hekla, a talented writer, wants to be recognised for her own work. Jón John just wants to love who he loves, and feel happy about it. Even Isey, young and with two small children, has landed in a life that she neither wanted nor agreed to, but is trying to do the best with the life she is given and take joy in the small happy things. I didn’t like the poet (whose name I cannot remember, but mostly because Hekla only really referred to him as “the poet”), who constantly called Jón John “the queer” and became jealous every time Hekla spent any time with him at all – not because he thought they were sleeping together, but because of what others would think and assume of himself. When he and Hekla first meet, it is the fact that she is a writer that attracts him to her, but later when he finds out that she’s actually published – and that she is the mystery author of the poetry that his group was obsessed with solving – he and his fragile masculinity and fear of a girl being better than him change their tune and start to inhibit her passions for writing. Then again, perhaps calling him “the poet” instead of his name was a clever way for the author to insinuate that he’s not the end of Hekla’s story, nor is he really that important to it, in the end.

The book didn’t really have chapters, instead it had what I am choosing to call little “vignettes”, which felt more like snippets of a story instead of the whole thing. It made the book feel choppy, and I wasn’t particularly a fan. However, the choppiness of the book could be attributed to the fact that it is translated fiction, which can be hit or miss. Overall, the writing did feel a bit poetic and artistic, which, for all intents and purposes, does kind of fit with the vibe of the book. I just wish I had the chance to get further into the characters’ minds with a complete thought, for once. I simultaneously want to be happy I finished it, but I also really would like to see further into the lives of these characters, and read more deeply into their thoughts and feelings. All I really want is for Hekla and Jón John to have a happy life, together or apart. I hope they get what they want most out of it, leaving the restrictions of their childhood home behind and finding what they most want in the world, because we can all relate to that.

And I what I really hope is that Hekla picks a much smaller book to practise her English with than Ulysses.

I received an advanced copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

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