Book Report: The Greenhouse

the greenhouseThe Greenhouse, by Audur Ava Olafsdottir, is instantly appealing, so it’s no surprise that Amazon Crossing chose to release Brian FitzGibbon’s translation. Its shy, modest protagonist has spent the years or so since his mother’s death caring for his aging father, his autistic twin brother, and his mother’s greenhouse, where he has cultivated a rare eight-petaled rose. Now he is leaving to take a job restoring the rose garden of a medieval abbey in an unnamed European country.
Lobbi is quiet and insecure, and seems to possess social skills only marginally more advanced of his autistic brother. But he is so sweet and guileless that you can’t help but like him. His impulses always lead him to do the right thing, even when he doesn’t know that’s what he’s doing. He seems as shocked as anyone that he has fathered a child (in the casual way that seems to be so common in Iceland) although he is not surprised for the same reason everyone else is. Throughout the book, other characters often imply that they thought this gentle, flower-obsessed boy was gay; he usually misses the significance of their comments.
His haplessness in life contrasts with his diligent efficiency in the garden. He slowly builds a Moominvalley life of domesticity by himself. When his infant daughter and her mother reenter his life, he instinctually tosses it away to take responsibility for them. It is heartwarming to read his cautious, experimental approach to family life. He is assisted by an old monk who prefers to transmit life lessons through classic films. As a quirky coming of age story, The Greenhouse is tremendously satisfying.
But there are other elements of the story that don’t settle quite so easily. Throughout the book, Audur drops clues that there may be something holy about infant Flora Sol. Lobbi repeatedly notes the appearance of an aura around his child, who resembles the infant Jesus in the monastery chapel’s stained glass window. The upstairs neighbor seems to believe the child is capable of curative miracles.
Except for a lovely visual image at the end, the religious elements of the story sort of disappear for the last third of the book, when the focus is entirely on the romantic relationship between Lobbi and baby-mama Anna. If the romantic relationship had resolved differently, I would have thought the baby was some kind of metaphor for the way Christ’s love brings people together, but as it is I’m left wondering why the mystic element was introduced at all.
Maybe the point is that Lobbi’s love for the child/Christ is what matters whether or not his worldly relationships survive. To tell the truth, I’m not very good at following Christian lines of thinking, so in the end I think I missed the point of The Greenhouse. But I enjoyed its quiet lyricism anyway, and I will keep an eye out for English translations of Audur’s other books.

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