Remember Björk? The trippy videos, the swan dress, Dancer in the Dark… I used to think of her as an artist marching to the beat of her own drum. In a word: “Quirky”. But as I continue my exploration of Icelandic literature I’ve come to believe that she might be a fairly typical example of the Icelandic population. Really, comparatively tame.
Take, for example, Kristín Ómarsdóttir’s Children in Reindeer Woods. It’s odd. Much odder than a swan dress. From page one – where the author describes three soldiers crossing a field – this book twisted me into knots. As I read, the trio casually approaches a farm. “A cow lows in the backyard”. The family comes out of the house to meet them.
On the east side, beside the gate, a pebbledash table is set into the earth. The woman with the red tray heads there. The breeze tugs at the edge of her skirt. The people stand in front of the soldiers, who shuffle their feet in the gravel. One of the soldiers shoots the woman with the tray. The milk bottle and glasses shatter. The coffee pot clatters to the ground. Blood runs from the woman’s eyes as she grips the tray tightly and falls; she lies face down in the grass as if resting peacefully on a pillow, and the blood leaks across it. The youngest child runs to her but is shot on the way. The cow lows in familiar fashion. The chickens hurry over to look at the bodies.
A girl, eleven-year old Billie, escapes the massacre by hiding in the bushes. When the shooting is over, only one soldier remains standing. He’s a strange, disturbed young man named Rafael. He picks her up, brings her into the house and begins caring for her. Their relationship is the main source of the book’s tension. We learn that Billie was sent by her parents to the house called “Children in Reindeer Woods”, and that she lived there with other children. (Something akin to London children being sent into the countryside during WWII to escape the Blitz). She quickly accepts Rafael as her new caregiver. Rafael plays farmer, as well as older brother, trying to create – or capitalize on – a bucolic oasis in a war zone. But Billie’s and his new life is continually threatened as people keep arriving at the farm.
The plot of Children in Reindeer Woods has a stylized, surreal quality. It reads like a fable or an allegory (imagine the video for the song Human Behavior). The strangeness created by the two main characters’ isolation seems like it should be symbolic of something…though what that something is remains elusive. Events in the outside world – Billie’s & Rafael’s back story – are alluded to but never fully explained. We don’t know which country they are in, who is fighting the war or the truth behind Billie’s strange memories of her parents. One thing I can state with certainty: Rafael has all the signs of suffering from a form of PTSD. (And possibly Billie as well). His condition shapes the readers’ perception of events, despite the fact that the story is told to us in third person. Lytton Smith has done a remarkable job of translating what has to be a complicated text in its original language. Setting down this novel feels like awakening from a fugue state.
Which might be why I finished it in one sitting. The experience of falling down the rabbit hole and the mystery of “what the hell is going” on acts like a carrot on a stick. Add to that the unbearable tension of waiting for Rafael to completely crack. Ómarsdóttir exerts constant pressure on the narrative by slipping moments of incredible violence between mundane, domestic images – giving them equal emphasis. She writes about a child playing with Barbies and the burning of bodies in the same way. And while at times, due to that idiosyncrasy in her prose, the plot may appear absurd - it never falls apart. Children in Reindeer Woods is definitely making a statement. I may not have figured out exactly what the statement is, but for some reason my ignorance in no way hindered my enjoyment of this thrillingly original novel.
Publisher: Open Letter, University of Rochester (2012)
ISBN: 978 1 934824 35 1