Heaven and Hell by Jon Kalman Stefansson

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Heaven and Hell by Jon Kalman Stefansson

Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: The salty life of an Icelandic fisherman meets the salt-of-the-earth yet incredibly poetic narration in this literary piece.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 240 Date: September 2011
Publisher: MacLehose
ISBN: 9781849164061

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Iceland, a hundred years ago. From a place that is the very definition of rural and remote, a small fishing boat leaves for four hours' hard row to a profitable bank. It carries six men on the way out, and five on the way back. The deceased is the best friend – or perhaps only friend – of the main character, who is still young enough to merely be known as boy. When he returns to port he enters an almost Camus-like semi-existence, wondering just how much life is an answer, and for what, after the tragedy he has witnessed.

Make no mistake, however, this book is not on the track of imitating just one proponent of the existential. It certainly carries on every page, and in every sentence, an inimitable Icelandic flavour. Even the narration is rarefied – at times it certainly makes you aware it is the collective 'we' provided by a nation of the dead. This existence allows the voice of the book to be both incredibly poetic and literary, yet also bluntly matter-of-fact, and always with an immersive present tense. A dead man is so much heavier than one who lives, the sparkling memories have become dark, heavy metal, we are told.

This, then, is an eminently rich read, one that can patter through one's vision, or linger in glacial grandeur. Characters come and go, events are drily portrayed, drastic and dramatic thoughts are registered by the narrator, and still the mood of the piece comes across, in what must be a brilliant translation. It's one of those short-seeming, but absorbing, reads that takes a lot into account in the writing, the reading and the reckoning. I wasn't too keen on the vaguer elements, or the lack of surprise held elsewhere, and a late chapter that has us dwell on the histories of some people and buildings in the village through the thoughts of a minor character was a bit disposable, but all the same.

This is a distinctive little novel, of some distinction.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy.

A completely different adventure in rural Iceland can be had with I Remember You by Yrsa Sigurdardottir.

Buy Heaven and Hell by Jon Kalman Stefansson at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Heaven and Hell by Jon Kalman Stefansson at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Heaven and Hell by Jon Kalman Stefansson at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Heaven and Hell by Jon Kalman Stefansson at Amazon.com.


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