Saturday 26 April 2014

From the Mouth of the Whale (by Sjón) - A review

From the Mouth of the Whale

Location: Iceland (mostly)
Author: Sjón
Publisher/Year: Telegram/2011 (first published in 2008)
Genre: Historical fiction
Theme: A novel about the wonders and cruelties of a changing world, as experienced by an exilee living alone on an island.

A modern classic, Sjón's work is reminiscent of great works from centuries gone by, a complex narrative set in an Iceland (and partly in Denmark) in the midst of great change. An engrossing tale, it is carried along by beautiful (if at times over-elaborate) language and a central character himself pushed along through intense upheaval in society.

The plot, as summarised at Goodreads
The year is 1635. Iceland is a world darkened by superstition, poverty, and cruelty.
Men of science marvel over a unicorn's horn, poor folk worship the Virgin in secret, and both books and men are burnt.
Jonas Palmason, a poet and self-taught healer, has been condemned to exile for heretical conduct, having fallen foul of the local magistrate. Banished to a barren island, Jonas recalls his gift for curing "female maladies," his exorcism of a walking corpse on the remote Snjafjoll coast, the frenzied massacre of innocent Basque whalers at the hands of local villagers, and the deaths of three of his children.
The characterisation of Jonas comes through quite strongly. A complex character, one feels his own conflicts in terms of how he should react to the changing world he lives in, as well as the harsh treatment meted out to him by his own peers and the tragedies that he had to endure. A great deal of this comes from the intense and detailed writing style, which captures every bit of emotion and every stray thought in Jonas' head, and which makes for an immersive and wonderful read.

The setting is depicted wonderfully, in ways crafting an island home for Jonas in a Robinson Crusoe-esque style (but arguably with more depth at times). There's a simultaneous feeling that this could be any place yet that it is also a very specific place, something that appeals to me on a very personal level (my favourite novel, Invisible Cities, uses this characteristic very effectively). This is decidedly an Icelandic novel, and it's easy to see why Sjón is a legend in his own land.

Overall, this book is a definite recommendation, though I do add the caveat that the intense and elaborate writing style may not be for everyone. The author is also a poet, and the inherent poetry in his prose stylings makes for a great deal of beauty but also much complexity.

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