Monday, April 8, 2013

On "The Journey Home" by Olaf Olafsson ***

Like Halldor Laxness's Atom Station, this book revolves around a lot of the fallout from World War II as it involved Iceland; only here the focus is even more personal. The narrator is a woman on her way home--though not for the first time. It's a testament to Olafsson's skill that he was able to weave several plotlines involving the same characters but in different eras together so seamlessly.

I say "seamlessly," but the book was definitely easier to read in long sittings than it was to read in shorter ones. Because each section might pick up in a different time period, and because various plots involve journeys back to Iceland, I did have difficulty sometimes, when I had been away from the book for a day or so, figuring out what was going on, where I was, which plotline I was following.

In standard order, the plot goes something like this: the narrator is an Icelandic woman whose parents want her to get a good business education. Instead, she takes up cooking as a side job and falls in love with it. This leads her eventually to, against her parents wishes, move to Britain, where she learns more about being a chef and has a job. There, she falls for a young Jewish man whose parents still reside in Germany during the lead-up to World War II. The letters from his mom become more ominous (that is, vaguer), so he returns to Germany to check in on them--and, of course, never returns.

Meanwhile, the narrator's parents (especially her mom) are having conniptions about her living with a man out-of-wedlock. When she more or less knows that her beau Jakob is not coming back, she packs up to return to Iceland for a visit. There, she gets a job as a private chef for a housebound woman and her family. There also, that family's son returns from Germany and, one night, essentially rapes the narrator. She becomes pregnant, and she returns to her family (by now her mother is recently dead), and her dad takes care of her and gets a family to adopt the baby the narrator will have. Meanwhile, a friend back in England, Anthony, has some ideas about turning his family inheritance--a big, old house--into a bed and breakfast and persuades the narrator to move back to be the cook and half-proprietor. They live together there for decades, serving others, until the baby that she had is graduating from school, which necessitates a visit to Iceland to see him as an adult, though she's not known him since his adoptive parents came into his life.

Told in straightforward fashion, the tale, I see here, is not as engaging as it is in its weaving of multiple time periods. What's also missing is this summary is Olafsson's pretty firm handle on the central character. Oddly, she's not someone I particularly liked. She seems very sure of herself, very stubborn, and very snobbish; others around her make all kind of mistakes, but she is always in the right. She reminded me a bit of Olive Kitteridge, though perhaps not quite as annoying or as interesting.

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