Book Report: Children of Reindeer Woods

Children of Reindeer Woods.

What. The. Fuck.

I’m glad I didn’t have to read this book for a course because that is all I have to say about it and that wouldn’t get me a very good grade. Shit. I did read it for a course. I have to try to figure this book out.

childrenreindeerwood_highres_largeIceland Writers Retreat workshops are led by award-winning internationally known authors. But Reykjavík is a UNESCO City of Literature (the only one where English is a second language), so many respected Icelandic authors, including poet, playwright, and novelist Kristín Ómarsdóttir, are involved in the event as well.

I am trying to read as many books by the local authors as I can before I leave for Reykjavík. Children in Reindeer Woods is the first novel by Kristín to be translated into English. The translator is Lytton Smith, and the book was published by Open Letter.

I don’t understand it at all. Like everything else I’ve read by an Icelandic author, Children in Reindeer Woods has a flat, matter of fact tone to it. Reindeer Woods feels like an extended riff on James Clavell’s The Children’s Story, except I think it might actually be making the opposite point. Sagas and Laxness excepted, all of the Icelandic books I’ve read have been short enough to read in a sitting, or two days at most. All of them have a spare elegance I associate with 20th century Japanese novelists like Kawabata or Niwa, whose minimalist stories told only prosaic events and details and hid the meaning in the spaces between the notes. The difference is that translations of modern Japanese authors are always accompanied by lengthy introductions that help explain the cultural signposts of the events in the story and give some of the context needed to make sense of the book.  All the help I got for Kristín’s book is a back cover blurb that says, “A lyrical and continually surprising take on the absurdity of war and the mysteries of childhood.” Because those two themes are obviously related.

I have to assume the blurb is right because the two main characters are a soldier who pretends to be a farmer and a precocious child who fears she may be retarded living together on a farm called Children in Reindeer Woods after he kills everyone else who lives there. What the fuck?

I get structure and theme and symbolism in novels.  But these Icelanders I don’t get. It’s incredibly frustrating to be so completely over my head in book after book. It’s enough to start questioning my qualifications to be a writer when I can’t even read a book successfully. I am somewhat comforted by the knowledge that other English speakers don’t get them either. Reviews of Reindeer Woods, like reviews of Sjón’s novels, always fall back on plot summaries – a sure sign that the reviewer can’t make heads or tails of it.

It would be such a relief to declare that these books are not good. But I can’t do that. The books, even in translation, have a lyrical quality to them, even when they describe the most mundane scenes. They are often highly referential, but I value stories that are dense with references to other works (you should see the footnotes to How to Read Chinese Poetry that I’m still trying to read). The scenarios are imaginative, often ludicrous and/or surreal, and although I can’t decode them, obviously rich in symbolic meaning.

Neither can I say I don’t enjoy them. Even though the soldier Rafael kills everyone else in the book, you know almost from the beginning that he will not kill the little girl Billie. And yet Kristín maintains the tension of a thriller through every page of the book. Everything is so surreal that you can’t actually be sure that he won’t suddenly turn around and shoot her in the middle of breakfast. Or maybe she will kill him – but no, she tries that early on, and he won’t bleed. Does that foreshadow an End of the World plot twist, or is it merely a metaphor for Rafael’s inhumanity? Billie’s father is a puppet, so it’s possible that Rafael is a robot or an alien – or maybe her father is a metaphor, too.

In any case, about 150 pages into the book, I realized that there was more than simple tension driving me forward through the book. I was, strangely, genuinely concerned for these two characters who might not really be humans or who maybe represent all humans. Rafael and Billie are both just children after all, and it is hard not to care if they figure out how to survive the coming winter on the farm and maybe even not kill any more people.

The Iceland Writers Retreat featured authors’ novels were so good they made me a little intimidated to attend the workshops, like I’ve hired Einstein to teach me addition. But reading the Icelandic authors has given me the kind of angst that I last felt when I tried (and miserably failed) my senior year in high school to read the Spanish existentialists in Spanish. This retreat is supposed to be as much about networking as craft. I am such an introvert that I had pretty much written off that aspect of the event. Me? Walk up to an artist like Joseph Boyden and strike up a conversation? Ever. That could kill me. But curiosity killed the cat, and it might even be enough to make me walk up to Kristín Ómarsdóttir and ask, “What the fuck?”

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