Children in Reindeer Woods by Kristín Ómarsdóttir (translated from Icelandic by Lytton Smith)

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

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Not Untrue & Not Unkind by Ed O’Loughlin (Advance Review Copy)

I suppose the plot of Not Untrue & Not Unkind went sideways for me at the end of chapter 3, when it suddenly became something unexpected.  Zaire is falling apart. The tight-knit band of journalists at the center of the story head in the direction of the abandoned presidential villa in search of some “bang-bang” (cant for “action” or “fighting”).  At least that is what we’re led to believe… until they reach the palace and begin looting for souvenirs.  “You do realize  that by rights this stuff belongs to the people of Zaire?” one says as she stuffs perfume flasks into a pillowcase.   “It’s the thing to do,” answers the story’s narrator.  “It’s a story to tell afterwards.”

The passage that followed had me hooked.

Outside the squall had passed but a wet wind was spilling from the highlands.  A half-dozen soldiers in Kagame-brand wellingtons were huddled in the shelter of the gatehouse, watching through what was left of its windows as we came across the lawn.  Tommo and Fine were waddling ahead with a heavy crate of bottles swinging between them, but when they saw the soldiers their pace slowed and Beatrice took the lead.  She was carrying one of my clinking pillow cases, smiling brightly, and as we trudged past the gatehouse she gave the soldiers a cheerful greeting and moved on towards our car.  We were out of the gate, almost clear, when a voice called after us.  A soldier stepped out of the gatehouse and stood there, waving one hand palm downwards.  He looked a little older than the others and his rifle was slung muzzle down to keep out the rain.  He took a step or two after us, out of the lee of the gatehouse, and then he stopped, shivering in the wind.  The faces of his comrades stared from the window behind us, indifferent with fatigue. The soldier considered us, his face screwed up, anxious, and then he spoke, very politely, in good mission-school English.  Could we please tell the other mzungus not to come here again, he said.  There were Interahamwe near by, and the area was not safe.  And besides, he said, someone had been looting.  He looked sadly at my bundle.  Looters, he said, could be shot.

The narrator of Not Untrue & Not Unkind is Owen Simmons, a journalist who spent the mid-1990’s as a foreign correspondent in Africa.  Now (a decade later) securely ensconced behind a newsroom desk, the death of a colleague causes him to look back on his former life and remember the friends who were a part of it.   Owen has a low opinion of his younger self (one we come to share) portraying him as wet behind the ears, with a chip on his shoulder and a romanticized image of his life.  He doesn’t even seem all that talented – at finding stories or writing them up afterwards.  It’s the author’s, and the book’s, greatest strength.  Ed O’Loughlin has developed a character, a whole cast of characters, that most readers will not find sympathetic.  Yet they are not unsympathetic.  The author asks us to withhold  judgment – just like in the lines of the Larkin poem from which the book gets its title – and it is surprisingly easy to comply.  Because his characters feel real  – each with his or her own fully developed, unique personality.  Fine, chasing his Pulitzer; Tommo, the earnest photographer; sophisticated Laura; hard, cynical Brereton and the enigmatic Beatrice who Owen falls in love with.   There is something of the mercenary in each.

O’Loughlin’s entire plot builds towards one final, tragic event  which hangs over the narrative like a dark cloud.  To be honest, for the purposes of the story, it’s the only event that matters. The chapters leading up to it are stuffed full of anecdotes, character development and beautiful prose.  Sentences that have been scrubbed clean of emotional content jump from one brutal scene of war to another.  And if some decision or memory is momentarily clouded by the narrator’s perspective, 10 years on Owen seems very much aware of his human frailty.  He makes it clear that acts of humanity and heroism took place despite the characters’ best intentions, not because of them.  The men and women who inhabit his story are not missionaries or idealists. They are more akin to tourists, sending dispatches home on the atrocities happening in Africa for general (and safe) consumption with coffee.  Everything is about detachment and if the novel does have a flaw it is that we are left to some extent feeling ambiguous. So much so that when the big secret (because of course it would have to be a secret) on which the story pivots is finally revealed – it has become anti-climactic for both Owen and for us.

Not Untrue & Not Unkind reminded me of the film Blood Diamond – without  redemption at its end.  Which is why I’m not surprised that the novel received mixed reviews when longlisted for the Man Booker last year. Personally, I found it to be  an impressive achievement for a first novel, if problematic.  Cartwright, the character whose death is the impetus for Owen’s reminiscences, always felt superfluous.  And the plot does sag a bit in the middle – just a bit.  There are too few feel good moments and the fact that nothing is explicitly labeled as morally right or wrong can be frustrating (usually I prefer my books to take a stand).  But the story is intriguing, the prose beautifully constructed and Ed O’Loughlin kept me reading until the end.  I enjoyed Not Untrue & Not Unkind and I believe that if others don’t go into it expecting the Africa from The Poisonwood Bible, No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency or even Out of Africa, they will as well.

Publisher:  The Overlook Press, New York.  (2010)
ISBN:  978 1 59020 295 1

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