Heaven and Hell by Jón Kalman Stefánsson
In a remote part of Iceland, a boy and his friend Barður join a boat to fish for cod. A winter storm surprises them out at sea and Barður who has forgotten his waterproof as he was too absorbed in “Paradise Lost”, succumbs to the ferocious cold and dies. Appalled by the death and by the fishermen’s callous ability to set about gutting the fatal catch, the boy leaves the village, intending to return the book to its owner. The extreme hardship and danger of the journey is of little consequence to him – he has already resolved to join his friend in death. But once in the town he immerses himself in the stories and lives of its inhabitants, and decides that he cannot be with his friend just yet.
I’m quite baffled as to how to even start this review. Half of the time I liked this book and the other half I did not. Stefánsson has created much more than a novel here – it is a piece of literature that really makes you question life and the meaning of everything around you. There is no doubt that Stefánsson has the ability to write the most beautiful and poetic prose I have probably ever read but at the same time, the story just didn’t grab me enough.
The first half is better than the second half. It was intriguing to see these men who appear almost as a family, depending on one another to get them through their daunting twelve hour shifts at sea. You learn a lot about each man there and they come across as just ordinary human beings living their lives and making their living. Apart from the boy (who is never named throughout) and his friend Bardur who have a relationship built on their love of literature and poetry. Fishing is never something they were born to do. Their loyalty to each other is touching and and you can’t help but feel completely helpless for the boy when Bardur is lost to the cold. He is compelled to think if his life is really worth living now, with his only real friend in the world gone. Stefánsson makes you question just what life is. What makes us want to go on living? These questions were really thought-provoking and I really did pause and ponder it for a while myself.
The second half of the novel is where it lost me. We are introduced to a number of different characters (all with very similar names!) and I found it hard to keep myself motivated to continue reading it. The boy is almost lost to us, which is absurd because he is the interesting character here. He is the one we want to follow and go on this journey with. I just didn’t care much for the other villagers for whom Stefánsson felt the need to describe each and every one of their life stories. I just wanted to get back to the boy.
The other thing that made the novel confusing for me is the question of who exactly is narrating this story? It is never clear and I could hardly even hesitate to guess.
If you love high quality, beautiful and poetic prose then read this! But if you’re after a grabbing plot that keeps you turning the page then it probably isn’t the one for you. I can certainly appreciate that Stefánsson is a fantastic writer, it’s just a shame that the story wasn’t on the same level as his writing.
Thanks to goes to MacLehose Press for sending me a copy!