Miss Iceland by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, transl. by Brian FitzGibbon
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
A deceptive, quiet, slow novel with no real ending which grasps the
struggles of woman and gay men in 1960s Iceland and beyond. As the world
goes through tumultuous change both physically with the 1963 sea
volcanic eruption and creation of the new island of Surtsey, and
socially with the assassination of JFK in the USA, the civil rights
movement and Martin Luther King's 'I had a dream' speech and the suicide
of Sylvia Plath, the narrator Hekla, poet and novelist, struggles
against sexism in both workplace and in society at large. This is also
the time of Miss World contests, the parading of young women in bathing
suits, of measurement by vital statistics.
In Reykjavik she eyes the poets in their cafe huddle but does not venture in to join them. She moves in with one, Starkadur, but still keeps the fact that she is a published poet secret from him. As he struggles to write and be published, she writes and finishes her novel in secret. Inevitably he finds out, inevitably she leaves him.
Her friend Ísey, having gone down the socially expected route of marriage and family, finds herself married to a man who can barely read while she hides her diary in which she writes about what has not been said and what has not happened. Her other friend, Jón John, wants to make theatrical costumes but works and does not fit in to the traditional male domain of fishing and life aboard long haul deep sea trawlers and whalers. Persecuted by his work mates, in dreams of love and seeks escape.
How these four people understand each other and support each other is the up side to this novel - the power of friendship in times of powerlessness against persecution and prejudice.
The novel barely has what could be called an ending. I was disappointed that Hekla wasn't the volcano she was named after and didn't break through the glass cage. I was sad that escape was but a dream for them, that Jon John would have to wait more that the 'seven minutes to midnight' for a change in the law and that most likely the only dream likely to come to fruition would be Issy one of delivering hoards of children.
What this novel does very well is remind us who lived through these times how whilst everything may not be ideal things have thankfully changed for many if not for all - women can be successful published poets, novelists, writers; both men and woman can express there sexuality as they desire in many countries. But as I write this today we hear that after park bans and university education were stopped the Taliban in Afghanistan are now ceasing girls primary school education - yet another generation of dashed dreams and future generations of illiterate women with unfulfilled potential.
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