The novel opens in Iceland in 1942. Because of his love and Passion for volcanos the protagonist of this novel is named by her father after a volcano. Hekla, is an active volcano in the south west of Iceland and also according to her father a beautiful name for a little baby girl.
Four and a half years after Hekla is born the volcano that shares her name erupts after lying dormant for over a century. Hekla’s (the baby, not the volcano) father is in rapturous ecstasy. He knows that most volcano enthusiasts never get to witness an eruption in their lifetime and although he is not there. his sister tells him over the phone exactly what is happening, and he repeats it excitedly verbatim to his wife, who could not care less.
He simply cannot let this once in a lifetime opportunity go by and he grabs his daughter jumps in his jeep and heads to the volcano like a bat out of hell, or a bat out of a volcano. When he returns the melted soles of his boots tell his wife just how close he got to witnessing his dream.
We than jump to 1963. Hekla’s body may be in a bus close to the city of Budardalur, but her mind is very much ensconced in Dublin as she reads James Joyce’s Ulysses. She pauses in her reading to think of the female poet who succumbed to melancholy and walked out into the river one night only to be found wrapped up in the fishing nets the following day.
The female poet was the only role model that Hekla had, all the other poets being men. You see Hekla is already a published writer.
At a stop, an annoying unctuous mand slips into the seat beside her and eventually after a lengthy inane one-sided conversation tells Hekla that he sits on the board of the Reykjavik Beauty Society and would she like to become and entrant in their Miss Iceland Beauty Contest. Hekla respectfully declines hoping he will get the message and leave her alone. He leaves her his card in case she has a change of mind.
As she arrives at her friend’s town, she stops on the way to peer through the windows of the Mokka cafe, the café where all the poets hang out, drinking coffee and compiling their latest works of art. She peers through the dark window but cannot make out any faces. Resignedly she trudges on to her friend’s place.
Both of Hekla’s best friends are severely depressed and feel trapped in lives that they don’t wish to live in. Isey, secretly envies Hekla. Her freedom, her writing. She feels trapped with her baby, contradicting herself, saying motherhood is the best thing that can happen to a woman and in the very next sentence wishing she was not stuck with her baby all day every day. There is a hint of mania in her voice as she tells Hekla that you can never take your eyes of them for even a second.
Jon John is a different kettle of fish. “Fish” being an intended pun because when we meet him, he has just returned from a fishing ship. A ship which he tells Hekla he is never going back to. Jon John is a gay man in a time when it is not “ok” to be gay, in fact, it is downright dangerous. The police see the queer folk as little better than paedophiles and Jon John, as well as receiving death threats, has been violently beaten more than once. He dreams to leave this city and work in fashion or the theatre.
Jon John is a mess of self-loathing, declaring to Hekla,
“I wish I weren’t the way I am, but I can’t change that. Men are meant to go with women, I sleep with men.”
“I don’t belong to any group Hekla. I’m a mistake who shouldn’t have been born.”
He never knew his father, an American soldier who sailed away leaving his mum with a copy of A farewell to Arms with an inscription “With love from John”. He never even knew his surname.
The narrative is very heavily character based, which in this case is a good thing as the characters are wonderfully rich and real.
In the 1960’s, writing, although there were a few notable exceptions, was still seen very much as a man’s vocation. This passage sums it up beautifully,
“Men are born poets. By the time of confirmation, they’ve taken on the inescapable role of being geniuses. It doesn’t matter whether they write books or not. Women, on the other hand, grapple with puberty and have babies, which prevents them from being able to write.”
The novel is also about deception and subterfuge. Hekla hides her writing from her poet boyfriend and writes under a male pseudonym, which many women writers were forced to do in order to publish their work.
There is a wonderful passage in the book alluding to deception, where Isey is explaining to Hekla about a painting they have on the wall. Isey tells Hekla that the painter told her that if she scraped the top layer of paint off, there is another painting underneath. Beautiful allegorical writing.
Hekla and Jon John are best friends, and both struggle every day to get by in life.
So, this is a story of the beautiful friendship of two square shaped pegs, born in the wrong time, unable and unwilling to fit into life’s round shape holes on the board. 4 Stars.
Auður Ava Olafsdóttir was born in Iceland in 1958, studied art history in Paris and has lectured in History of Art at the University of Iceland. Her earlier novel, The Greenhouse (2007), won the DV Culture Award for literature and was nominated for the Nordic Council Literature Award. She currently lives and works in Reykjavik.
Thankyou to Grove Press, Black Cat for this early ARC.
This novel has an expected release date of June 16th 2020.