The year is 1883, and the stark Icelandic landscape is the backdrop for this spellbinding fable that is part mystery, part fairy tale. The fates of a priest, a naturalist, and a young woman with Down syndrome are intrinsically bound and gradually, surprisingly unraveled.
"Sjon's fable...describes its world with brilliant, precise, concrete colour and detail while at the same time making things and people mysterious and ungraspable...The world of 19th-century Iceland is brilliantly and economically present: the bareness of the dwellings, the roughness of the churches and congregations, the meager food...The novel is a parable, comic, and lyrical about the nature of things."—A.S. Byatt for The Times
Sjon was born in Reykjavik, Iceland, in 1962. A novelist, playwright, lyricist, and poet, he wrote the lyrics to Bjork’s hit songs “Isobel,” “Joga,” and “Bachelorette” and was nominated for an Academy Award for his lyrics to the music for the film Dancer in the Dark, directed by Lars von Trier.
This is one of those books I came across by accident while exploring Amazon. I’m not a great fan of the Amazon suggestions, they seem to often bear little resemblance to my likes or too much so in that I have already bought them (sometimes from Amazon), but sometimes they throw up a gem like this lovely novella by an Icelandic writer I had never heard of and now will be seeking out.
The book starts as the relatively simple story of a man hunting a fox across the winter wasteland, a contest of cunning and endurance. As was the writer’s intention I was firmly on the side of the blue fox vixen. It then expands into the tale of a herbalist, Fridrik Fridjonsson, and the Down Syndrome girl he saves and protects. The story is set in the 1883 when Down Syndrome is not understood and in Iceland children born with it are routinely killed at birth. Fridjonsson’s gentleness and generosity are in stark contrast with that of the hunter, who also happens to be the local priest and who refused to have the girl in his services.
As for the magic realism in the book let us just say it concerns the blue fox of the title. To say more would spoil the story. The ending too in which the strands are brought together must for the same reason remain a blank.
I loved this book. It is beautifully written and equally beautifully translated: Blue foxes are so curiously like stones that it is a matter for wonder. When they lie beside them in winter there is no hope of telling them apart from the rocks themselves.
The descriptions capture the landscape and the tension of the hunt beautifully. The story is as beautiful and brutal as a northern winter. Despite or perhaps because of that brutality I loved the humanity of the book: the portrayal of the herbalist and the girl’s relationship. I recommend this book to you.