The Sorrow of Angels by Jon Kalman Stefansson

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The Sorrow of Angels by Jon Kalman Stefansson

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: The middle part of a trilogy has a little less power than the first, but still shows with vivid authority how awkward life can be in the middle of a stormy environment.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 304 Date: August 2013
Publisher: MacLehose Press
ISBN: 9780857051653

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Our decidedly unheroic main character has been at the café for three weeks now, so we are following on very closely from Heaven and Hell. After the tragedy and soul-searching of that first book, he seems settled in the ridiculous family that has formed around him there, finding employment, enjoying the literature, yet being very intrigued by the female body. The man who is still young enough to be known only as the boy might have latched on to stability for once, and replaced the family and best friend he had lost. But everything is restless in this environment, and once again he might just be tempted to go on a journey, with another male companion, despite the harshness of the surrounds.

Everything here is liminal. The inhabitants are on the edge of the fjords and seas of rural Iceland, neither away from the water nor rigid on the terra firma that is the high land. The boy is of course on the cusp of adulthood, and the elongated winter makes this horrid April neither here nor there climate-wise. The sea, the weather, the characters, are all in a state of flux. And the narration is once again undertaken by the collective consciousness of dead and drowned Icelanders of old – the borders between the living and the dead are also fluid.

It's the stately, hard-hitting poetry of that eminently quotable narration that makes the feckless boy and his life story of most interest. There is less soul-searching here, perhaps, than the first book, but all the same, this is written as if to prove the (unrecorded) historical dominance of the listless, and one example's journey past, through and towards death. It might appear to be a typical rites of passage tale – having found a family, he and several other people can look for sex and other bodily contact – but the rarefied character of the location, Iceland a hundred years ago being very vivid, means you may never realise how close you are in subject to Camus, or the Beats.

This book, despite being the middle part of a trilogy, seems to be a mirror of the first. That started with the journey and ended with less movement, this is the reverse. There it was the dangers of deep open water that hit most, here the perils of going higher on land. The boy can do more to help, as he is forced to grow and gain experience, from and about books, and life. Therefore it's intriguing to see what the final book would concern itself with. And seeing might be the operative word – if the projected film of all three arrives on our shores soon after completion it might beat the translation of the last volume. But the fact all three are being filmed as one does show the much-of-a-muchness the books seem to suffer from. This varies only minorly in theme from the first, and might as well be a straight continuance within the same covers – take very little notice of blurb saying it's self-contained.

So I'm ambivalent about wanting to conclude the trilogy when it's published. There is a story here, for sure, a journey Stefansson is taking the boy along that can easily intrigue and appeal. But the increased length of this leg of that journey, and its repetitive, low-on-action plot does for me diminish and dilute the power of feeling that narration for the first time. It's certainly a saga that has a singular, literary nuance about it, which does make me glad to have met it, but it might have been just as good for it to remain a singular visit.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy.

It's a very different kind of book, but We Die Alone by David Howarth equally puts the reader right in the middle of nasty weather on Nordic mountains.

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