The Short Version: The story of Jonas Palmason, an incredibly learned poet and healer in 17th-Century Iceland. He’s consistently betrayed by his fellow man – who are all afraid of his knowledge and his man-out-of-time nature. It is a story of magic, of science – of a time when those two things weren’t necessarily a paradox.
The Review: Sjón is apparently a big deal in Iceland. He has won a number of prizes for his work – and I can understand why literary awards would be attracted to an author like this. He’s lyrical, poetic even… but still writing prose. He’s tackling Big Issues in an oblique way that makes you think. But I just can’t get behind the novel in the way that it seems so many others have.
It’s constructed in an interesting way – there are third-person omniscient moments and first-person specific moments (including an interesting introduction, told from Lucifer’s point of view before the fall). I much preferred the third-person stories: I think that Sjón’s writing seems to fit better in a more constrained format. When he’s telling a story in the first person (with the exception of that Lucifer story at the outset), he tends to wax oblique. Every sentence ends with an ellipsis… and while that’s not necessarily a bad thing to use sparingly… and I’m certainly guilty of enjoying the use of ellipses… it gets a little frustrating when every thought ends with those three dots… It just becomes a weird visual issue that I, for one, couldn’t get over… Let alone the actual grammatical implications… It’s just a strange and annoying quirk of the book.
There is quite a bit of beautiful writing in this book, though. There’s a surprising bit of magic, too, all things considered. The author (through Jonas) debunks the unicorn horn in a scientist’s study as that of the narwhal – and it’s fascinating to see that people used to think that these horns were incontrovertible proof of unicorns’ existence – but then he also very explicitly exorcises a walking corpse. Like, dead guy comes back to life and is possessed and doing all sorts of crazy shit – and they exorcise him. This is a thing that can’t be real… but it comes in a story where there’s quite a bit of emphasis put on debunking things, of learning how the world actually works – of not being afraid of the moon getting bigger and smaller but realizing that it is in fact just the way of the world, of the spheres, of the solar system. For example. So there’s a strange dichotomy here and I don’t quite know how to synthesize it. I want to like the book – but there are issues I have too, with the tone and with the general hazy attitude the whole book puts forward. I wanted this to be a true epic of the 1600s, a tale of the battle between the new and old ways – and instead, it was a meandering and somewhat oblique examination of that issue but also of one man’s story. And while it’s an interesting story, we don’t even get the whole thing: the epilogue specifically says “we could talk about this event and that event, but we won’t.”
Having had a conversation with a literary agent today about plot in novels…. I find that this book just didn’t really have a plot. Sure, there were little pieces of something approaching plot, but not actually anything that you could call a plot. It’s about this man’s life and there are minor conflicts that come up – but at the end of the day, I just don’t know if I actually care about Jonas. I don’t think I actually do. And that’s a problem, because if the book is in fact just a tale about a character’s life, I should care about that character.
Rating: 3 out of 5. There was just something so anticlimactic about the entire experience of reading this book. There’s a large number of beautiful moments in the book, for sure – but there are a number of dull pages too. Beautiful writing only does so much – I can’t take it when the beautiful writing ends up replacing the story itself. The individual instances in this book, the events like the exorcism and the murder of the whalers and even the visit to Copenhagen, are wonderful and I wish the entire thing had been structured around events and made to cohere as such. Instead, it’s this rambling ‘lyrical’ novel that appeals to people who like their stories oblique. And that’s all fine and good – but just not for me at this moment.