If You Go Down to the Woods Today…

A while back, Stu from Winstonsdad’s Blog was lucky enough to have a Q & A with Sjón, the Icelandic writer whose book (From the Mouth of the Whale) we chose as our Shadow IFFP winner.  Among the many gems uncovered were Sjón’s recommendations for further reading in Icelandic literature – namely Halldór Laxness’ The Fish Can Sing, and Kristín Ómarsdóttir’s Children in Reindeer Woods.  I read one of Laxness’ books a few weeks back, and as luck would have it, I had also just received a review copy of Ómarsdóttir’s novel from Open Letter Books.  Consider this a post with the Sjón seal of approval 😉
Children in Reindeer Woods (translated by Lytton Smith) is a slightly bizarre book with a highly explosive start.  On a nice sunny day, somewhere in the country, a trio of soldiers walk up to a house.  The inhabitants come out to greet them, smiling happily…  then, one by one, they are gunned down.  The three soldiers go into the house, but only one walks out alive – and the only other person to escape the carnage is an eleven-year-old girl called Billie…

Alone on the farm, Billie and Rafael, the surviving soldier, attempt to draw up some kind of boundaries, rules for establishing a fragile coexistence.  Their relationship is a forced, somewhat strained one, with neither quite sure what the other is actually doing there, both settling for a temporary life which excludes the outside world.  As the summer goes by, the two begin to enjoy each other’s company in their blissfully bucolic existence.  If only all these people didn’t keep dropping in uninvited…

If the start is confusing, don’t expect the rest of the book to provide many answers.  The writer appears to have deliberately set out to create a novel in which very little can be recognised or taken for granted.  We are told that there is a war, but we have no idea who is fighting.  We know that we are in the middle of nowhere (later we find out that it it is 1100 kilometres to the nearest city), but where exactly this nowhere lies is less certain.  The lack of ideas to hold onto makes reading Children in Reindeer Woods extremely disorientating.

When Billie and Rafael venture out of the house, this feeling intensifies.  The two drive out over Ceaseless Heath, down through the Endless Pass and look out over Forever Valley.  Reindeer Woods appears to be located within a bubble in space and time (or in a Beckett play…), and this sense of placelessness gives the whole book, and every action in it, a sense of unreality. 

Even the names of the characters don’t really give us much to go on.  Billie, Rafael, Soffia, Abraham, Marius… It’s as if Ómarsdóttir has deliberately chosen a collection of unrelated foreign names to further obscure the true location of her story.  And while we know that Rafael is a soldier, it’s unclear whether he’s still in the army, or if he has decided to run away from the (invisible) war.  As for Billie, for most of the book, we have no real idea why or how she ended up in the house.  I don’t think we’re in Iceland any more, Toto…

Another way in which Ómarsdóttir creates her web of confusion is the language her characters use.  Billie’s strange mix of over-formal expressions and slang can be explained by her age and the unfamiliar circumstances, but Rafael’s speech is just as unsettling.  In his conversations with one of the visitors, the language constantly swings between registers, changing from friendly, to formal, to suspicious in a heartbeat.  The result is that we are constantly on eggshells, never quite certain that bloodshed, or something just as ominous, isn’t just around the corner…

So what’s it all about, you say?  The impressionability of youth?  The confusion of war?  Your guess is as good as mine.  Children in Reindeer Woods is an absorbing book, one which is more disturbing than entertaining, in the sense that the reader can never settle down with the feeling that this is what the author is getting at.  It’s a book which requires (demands) rereading – whether it will give up its secrets on a second attempt is questionable though…

One quotation, however, might give a clue as to what Ómarsdóttir is trying to say:

“In war, the murders committed by the victors are unimpeachable – the same way as the insane are not held responsible for their crimes.” p.128 (Open Letter Books, 2012)

In a story where many, many, mad, bad things happen, the reader is asked to decide who is responsible and how far we can blame them for their crimes.  While, none of the people we meet in Reindeer Woods could be described as completely sane, perhaps we need to ask ourselves who, exactly, is mad here?

No, it makes no sense to me either 😉

4 thoughts on “If You Go Down to the Woods Today…

  1. Sounds interesting but I would have to be in the right mood. I0m not sure I like to be left that much on my own with my interpretations though.
    Now that you mention Stu – did you see his post today! He underestimates how much we like his blog and how many suggestions we find.


  2. Lisa – Time to get to it then 😉

    By the way, my current read might be something for you, Kári Gíslason's 'The Promise of Iceland'. It's a non-fiction book from UQP about a half-Australian, half-Icelandic man 🙂


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