María Bjarkadóttir: Love, death and the woman in the mirror. The works of Þórey Friðbjörnsdóttir.
Þórey Friðbjörnsdóttir has been active as a writer and translator in the past few years, but until then she focused much more on translation. She has translated a number of books from English, and has to date sent forward four original works, all very different in content and directed at different audiences.
The children’s book Eplasneplar came out in 1995 as the winner of the Icelandic Children’s Literature Prize that year. It is written in the form of letters, where Breki Bollason, an eight year old Reykjavík boy, writes to his grandfather in the countryside. Not only does Breki tell his granddad news of himself and his family, he also muses about various things in life. He writes about his relationship with his mother, his sister and his school friends, but the main reason for his writings is that he gets paid for each letter he mails. This however does not bore him, and sometimes he even tries to get his grandfather to pay him more by writing unusually long letters. The letters are filled with humor, which for the most part escapes Breki himself. His story about his mother’s pregnancy is for instance very funny, he doesn’t understand why she isn’t ashamed of herself, since he knows how babies are made and finds it embarrassing that everyone can know what his parents were doing. In spite of the humorous tone, the letters also carry a more serious undercurrent, Breki is starting to understand that the world is not always a simple place to dwell in and that you sometimes have to deal with difficult things, such as his mother’s loneliness when his father is away at sea, or bullying at school.
Breki tries his best to make things work out, he encourages his mother when she is sad and worries about her physical condition when it seems to him that she is gaining too much weight (due to the pregnancy, which he at that time does not know about). He also sits close by her side when her critical girlfriends come over, as he wants to defend her when they start criticizing her way of keeping the house. He also discovers, after some good advice from his grandfather, it is all right to play with the new boy at school, even if he has a strange name.
Even if the reader often laughs at Breki and his ideas about life, it is by no means a condescending stand he takes towards the character, and there is no trace of sarcasms in the narrative style. The author does not make Breki make a fool of him, and the other characters do not laugh at him, granddad for instance seems to take him very seriously and the same can be said about his mother. Thus, Breki does not lose any credibility as a character.
Þórey’s books for teenagers are more serious than Eplasneplar. The first one, Aldrei aftur (Never Again; 1993), tells about three siblings in their teens. They are part of a big family; the children are five in all, and their grandmother lives with them to help out as the mother is studying and the father working. The three oldest children are at different stages of the teen years and deal with different problems, more serious as they become older.
Jói is the youngest of the three; he is in ninth grade and is usually pretty laid back. He is a drummer in a heavy metal band, but when the singer has a soar throat when they are supposed to perform at the school dance, Jói has to take his place. He is shy and rather withdrawn at the start of the book, but when he has to stand on the stage and sing a slow song for all his school mates, he overcomes his shyness and in addition becomes the idle of all the girls.
The teenager in the middle is Begga who is a year older than Jói. Her problems are somewhat more serious than Jói’s, and most likely common among teenage girls. She has to decide whether she is ready to sleep with her boyfriend or not. Her first love betrays her, tries to seduce her and is full of promises, but starts to date another girl while Begga is making up her mind. Begga’s best friend is the pretty girl in school and on top of Begga’s problems; she also has to defend her friend’s honor, as she is a bit of a butterfly and doesn’t care about defending herself. This leads to boys thinking of Begga as being serious and even dull, thus not daring to approach her, which is the opposite of what Begga really wants.
The oldest child, Steini, deals with the most difficult and heart breaking problems. He is in high school and is in a group of friends that most adults would not think highly of. He skips school with his friends and smokes and drinks with them, unlike what he used to be like before. These new friends put a great deal of pressure on him, get him to skip school with them, be a driver for the group and go to parties with them and get drunk. Steini does not realize until too late that his new friends deal with problems far more serious than what he has known before, as some of them have started using harder drugs than alcohol. After a party that ends with the police bursting in, things that no one could have foreseen happen, the group breaks up and Steini is all of a sudden pulled into the adult world, totally unprepared.
As already stated, the siblings are at different stages in their teens, and the problems they face get more serious the older they get, from Jói who has to sing for the whole school to Steini, who has to face death. The narrative is at the same time realistic and dramatic, life is both terrible and a little romantic, the sudden death of Steini’s friend is not sugar coated in any way, and the description of Begga’s relationship with the boy she has a crush on is at the same time romantic and melancholic, just as teenage love is when it’s at it’s best – or worst. Begga’s love, her disappointment when she is betrayed, and Steini’s reaction to death are described with great insight, and many readers without doubt know these feelings themselves.
Þegar sálin sér (When the Soul Sees; 1994), is also a book written for teenagers, but very different from Eplasneplar. It tells the story of the sisters Auður and Guðrún, who are in their upper teens. Guðrún is a popular girl, both pretty and fun, and a little careless, but Auður is the sensible one who in many respects lives in the shadow of her sister.
Auður however has talents that Guðrún does not. She sees things that others don’t, she dreams about things that are yet to happen and she has a way of sensing if things and events are good or not. In spite of these talents, she is not made strange in any way, neither positively or negatively, and is in fact a very ordinary teenage girl, serious and responsible. At the start of the story, Auður is not in full control of her psychic nature, and she has the same uncanny dream over and over again. She knows this has some meaning for her and her sister’s live, but can not figure out how.
After she and Guðrún discover that they are not sisters by birth, but that Guðrún is adopted, Guðrún becomes depressed and then Auður has to use her talents in order to help her. Guðrún becomes withdrawn and peculiar; she stops seeing her friends and closes off from her sister and parents as well. Finally, she disappears and Auður senses that there is something bad going on. She has to gain control of her talents in order to understand what is happening and the clues offered to her, for she is the only one who can find Guðrún.
The world Guðrún has entered is the same one that Steini in Aldrei aftur gets into, but Guðrún is there on different terms than he was. While Steini is an onlooker and innocent enough not to fully understand what is going on, it’s rather the people around Guðrún who do not understand how deeply her discovery of her roots affects her. Furthermore, they do not sense how different her behavior has become, no one except Auður that is.
There are several references to the tale of Sleeping Beauty in the story, Guðrún is the sleeping beauty here, but the prince and the witch are one and the same person. It is the prince in this story who poisons Guðrún, but not the witch, Sleeping Beauty is stung by the witch’s poisonous needle but Guðrún by the prince’s one. He is the one who wants her to sleep for a hundred years. Auður takes on the role of the good witch and saves her sister at the last minute. As the good witch in Sleeping Beauty, she breaks the spell: the police take care of the prince.
Even if these two books both tell of teenagers, love, death and drugs, the stories are very different. Aldrei aftur is in a way more realistic, while Auður’s psychic nature and the Sleeping Beauty connection make Þegar sálin sér more adventurous. In spite of its focus on every day events, the book is in parts more like a dream than reality, which is in line with the space Auður’s dream takes up in the story. In addition to being a love story, a story of sisterhood and a teenage story, Þegar sálin sér is also a thrilling crime story, where Auður traces the path of her lost sister together with a few of her friends.
In both books, the story is told from the point of view of the teenagers themselves and the narrator does not judge the kids and their behavior. In both however, one character represents the voice of reason, Begga in Aldrei aftur and Auður in Þegar sálin sér. Neither preaches over others though, they are first and foremost serious and responsible characters. The point of view moves between Begga, Jói and Steini in Aldrei aftur but stays with Auður in the latter book.
Spegilsónatan (The Mirror Sonata) is Þórey’s first book for adult readers. The novel describes a passionate love affair between two people who never fully get to be together, even though there is a bond between them that can not be cut. Their affair starts when they are quite young, and follows them throughout their lives, until the death of the man, Kjartan.
The story is told from the point of view of the woman, Guðrún, and it is put together of three fragments. These are stories of the relationship from different periods, the present story after Kjartan’s death when Guðrún is at his wake, and finally Guðrún’s inner dialogue where she is split into two women. One might be called a socially connected woman, or the body, and the other a wild woman, or the soul. These two women battle about control in Guðrún’s life.
The story of Guðrún and Kjartan’s love affair is one of the fragments in the story. It starts when they get to know each other as children, and the narrator then appears at different places in their lives, seemingly at random. One can nevertheless detect a certain pattern, as the narrator always tells of events that have had great effect on Guðrún’s life, be it conversations between her and Kjartan, or meetings between them after not having seen each other for long periods of time.
The fragments from the present take place at Kjartan’s wake, and there the point of view stays with the church janitor who does his best to make things go according to tradition. He is however not prepared for Guðrún’s presence at the ceremony. She disturbs his whole system from the start, by showing up too early, by sitting where people do not normally sit, and by leaving long after all the other guests have left. The janitor discovers this woman who sits all by herself at the back of the church is no ordinary old lady. He even sees things that are not there but are connected to her, he sees the old lady transform into a young girl, hears laughter in the church that no one else seems to hear, and sees the couple, the deceased man and the woman left behind, standing together by the coffin, young and transformed.
Guðrún’s inner speech is the third fragment. There, she contemplates her life, and carries on a conversation with a part of herself that has been hidden. She is a split woman, the good woman who lives a quiet and socially accepted life, forgets the love of her life marries another man and has three children with him, and the woman in the mirror, the wild woman with the unkempt hair who never forgets her love and is nourished by the thread that lies between them. She describes herself and Kjartan as two trees with common roots and these roots nourish their relationship in spite of the distance between them.
The fragments that describe the past and the present are rather traditional in form, whereas the ones that relate Guðrún’s inner battle are fragmented themselves. The style is poetic, dreamy and wandering, whereas the chapters that describe the past, and up to a point those who take place in the church, are traditional and tangible, the real world so to speak. The title, Spegilsónata (Mirror Sonata) points to Guðrún’s understanding of her life as a piece of music, her life’s sonata. When she and Kjartan part, a false tone is struck that cannot be made good until they are reunited. The mirror sonata also points to the woman in the mirror being the one that the story is really about, Guðrún’s other side, the one that lives through love and refuses to let go of it, the one that in the end becomes one with Kjartan. The names of these characters, Guðrún and Kjartan, remind us of the lovers in the medieval Laxdæla Saga that are not meant to be together, Guðrún Ósvífursdóttir and Kjartan Ólafsson, but here the roles have been reversed, as in Þórey’s novel Guðrún goes abroad without Kjartan and he refuses to wait for her and marries another woman.
The oeuvre of Þórey Friðbjörnsdóttir so far, although not big, contains different books, even if the subject matter is similar. Her books for children and teenagers are about stepping into a new world, be it dangerous or exciting, and the narrative style is light or serious as fits each time. Spegilsónata seems radically different from these books, but certain similarities can be found, such as the focus on love and death. Þórey’s style is enchanting and convincing, whether the subject matter is a mom that just seems to get bigger and bigger, and thus must eat an enormous amount of food, or the first, and even the only, love.
María Bjarkadóttir, 2003.
Translated by Kristín Viðarsdóttir.Back