When World Editions asked me a while back if I would be interested in reviewing any of their titles, the three I picked out were (coincidentally) all by female writers. I’ve already posted on Linda Boström Knausgård’s The Helios Disaster, and I’m also hoping to get around to Birgül Oğuz’s HAH before too long, but today I’m posting on a novel from Iceland, a country I’ve visited many times in my blogging career. Unusually, though, where most Icelandic books are set at home, this one takes us to Berlin, where a chance encounter threatens to upset an accomplished doctor’s orderly life…
Steinunn Sigurðardóttir’s Yo-yo (translated by Rory McTurk) begins in the office of cancer specialist Martin Montag as he gently informs his patient that a tumour has been detected in the man’s oesophagus. The elderly gentleman, devastated by the news (and particularly unhappy because he feels that his healthy lifestyle should have protected him from this), takes some calming down, and by the time Martin is alone in his office again, he feels exhausted.
However, the fatigue which suddenly settles upon him isn’t entirely due to the normal stresses of dealing with an emotionally affected patient. As Martin examines the tumour again, the blot on the scan reminds him of a yo-yo, and his plans of casually celebrating the first day of spring with his wife, Petra, are thrown into disarray. He begins to feel pain in his chest and shoulder, needing to rest in the garden outside before being able to face his next patient. Something in the scan has brought up long repressed memories, and Martin’s life is about to become a lot more complicated…
I’ve had a lot of joy from Icelandic writers in the past (e.g. Sjón, Jón Kalman Stefánsson, Gyrðir Elíasson), and Sigurðardóttir is certainly another to add to that list of authors. Yo-yo is a novel which manages to both keep a light touch and handle a delicate subject, all the while wrapping the story in an air of mystery which never entirely dissipates. The ending, while appropriate, still has me wondering regarding several points I hadn’t been able to work out.
Montag initially appears to be the epitome of the clinical specialist, a man who devotes his life (as a friend quips) to his struggle against ‘the man with the scythe’:
I put on my white coat, drink a glass of water, sit down in front of the screen and subject the day’s tumours to ruthless analysis, viewing them with ice-cold hatred. ‘Hate’ and ‘heat’ may sound much the same, but my hatred is cold and calculating, directed against an enemy intent on taking life: life that is in my care.
p.49 (World Editions, 2015)
In order to achieve his focus, the doctor has arranged his life around his work, his daily schedule of running, coffee and an early commute designed to facilitate his attack on tumours.
Yet it isn’t long before the reader suspects that all is not well in Montag’s world, and the writer confirms our suspicions in the form of flashbacks, taking us back to his childhood. Many of these scenes involve a childhood friend whose life was tragically cut short, but others revolve around a walk home by the river, one where Martin’s life took an unexpected turn. Little is explicitly stated for most of the book, but it isn’t hard to read between the lines and draw the connection between the memories and the events of the doctor’s recent consultation.
The plot relies on the initial confrontation with the old man, but part of the beauty of Yo-yo is the writer’s characterisation of Montag, a portrayal of a driven specialist who recognises that when it comes to normal human existence, he’s more akin to a robot than flesh and blood. His partner, Petra, grew up with a mother suffering from severe mental illness, and is able to cope with Martin’s needs:
Petra doesn’t fuss me when I’m out of sorts. I allow myself long periods of silence when I’m in that kind of mood, and Petra remains unaffected. It’s particularly fitting that the demands of companionship are not pressing upon this evening. (p.133)
If the language appears stilted, that’s deliberate – Sigurðardóttir and McTurk are adept at showing the way in which Montag is ever-so-slightly adrift of ‘normal’ human emotion.
In fact, throughout Yo-yo, there’s a temptation to describe the action as schizophrenic, at times figuratively, but often also literally. One of the biggest puzzles for me was Montag’s friend, Martin Martinetti, a former patient who, with his heavy drinking and joie de vivre, is the antithesis of Montag’s Teutonic perfection, a man who also has a ‘perfect’ understanding partner and represents the kind of person Montag would secretly like to be. I have no idea whether I’m reading too much into this (and the issue is never clearly resolved), but it certainly adds another dimension to the novel.
While I’ve already mentioned other great Icelandic writers, I must also give thanks to the translators. I’m not sure if it’s because Icelandic is related to English (distantly…), but virtually all of the Icelandic books I’ve read have been brought across into English excellently. Victoria Cribb and Philip Roughton are names I always like to see on books, and Rory McTurk may well join that group in future. Sigurðardóttir is obviously adept at moving between drama and humour, and the translation mirrors this in English, whether it’s with alliteration (‘Martin Montag’s marvellous memory’) or striking imagery:
The place was Brachvogel, the day was a day in April between our two birthdays, and the smell of spring in the air was such that it quite simply stank. (p.74)
Not how I envision spring, but each to their own 😉
Yo-yo doesn’t appear to have got a lot of press, but it’s certainly a book I’d recommend. Anyone looking for more Icelandic tales of claustrophobic winters and battles against the elements (along with lashings of coffee…) will be disappointed, but most readers will enjoy this. In a year when the small island nation hit the headlines for its sporting achievements, mark this down as yet another success for Iceland 🙂
#WITMonth Bonus Shot – Number 7
Welcome to the seventh of my #WITMonth Bonus Shot features, in which I suggest some further reading ideas connected to the post (and country) of the day – links, where applicable, are to my reviews 🙂
The sharp-eyed among you will have noticed that the Icelandic writers mentioned above are all men, and I must admit that they are my favourite authors from the country. However, I have read a few books by female Icelandic writers, most of which I’ve enjoyed. I’ve tried two novels by Auður Ava Olafsdóttir, The Greenhouse and Butterflies in November, and while I enjoyed the understated romance (and comedy) of the former, the second book didn’t really work for me.
Two other books I appreciated more, though, are Guðrún Eva Mínervudóttir’s novel The Creator, a surprisingly tender story of a man who makes sex dolls (really…), and Kristín Ómarsdóttir’s Children in Reindeer Woods. This one is set during a war in an unidentified location and is a quirky look at the relationship between a young girl who survives a massacre and a soldier who decides to desert his post.
I’ll be trying another very soon too. I recently received a copy of Oddný Eir’s Land of Love and Ruins from Restless Books, and I hope to have a review out for the publication date in October. Finally, for those of you who (unlike me) enjoy crime fiction, one of the big names in Nordic Noir is Yrsa Sigurðardóttir – if you like murders beyond the Arctic Circle, why not give her work a try?