I picked this novel up in a bookstore this past summer. I liked the cover and the book blurb, and I liked that it was translated from Icelandic. I’m always eager to discover good translated literature.
Luckily, this was a great discovery.
Miss Iceland is the sixth novel by Icelandic novelist Audur Ava Ólafsdóttir.
Miss Iceland is set on that remote island nation in the 1960s. We follow along as young woman, Hekla – named for a volcano that erupted at the time of her birth – takes the bus from her rural farming town of Dalir to the captal city of Rejkjavik.
Hekla has always dreamed of becoming a writer, but there were few contemporary literary role models for young women in this Nordic country as she was growing up.
Although Hekla has published several poems,she believes she can better achieve the writing life she craves in the capital, where she can frequent literary cafes and rub elbows with great poets. Armed with her Remington typewriter and little else, she sets out by coach to embark on her new life.
“For every thought that is conceived on earth, there is an Icelandic word.”
Two of her Dalir friends have preceded her in their own journeys to the capital, also hoping to escape their small-town roots in pursuit of their dreams.
Ísey’s journey was sparked by an unplanned pregnancy, rather than the literary ambitions she secretly harbors. Marriage has brought her to the suburbs of Rejkjavik where she feels lonely and trapped caring for her husband and young daughter, and envies Hekla the chance to pursue her dreams.
Hekla’s best friend, Jón John, a closeted gay man who feels like an outsider, escaped to Rejkjavik hoping attitudes would be more open in the nation’s capital, but he is swiftly disappointed. Although he dreams of a career as a theatre costume designer, he earns his living aboard fishing trawlers, working alongside the hyper-masculine fishermen.
All three friends are outsiders, in their own way, always longing for lives – and happiness – just beyond their reach.
.Hekla earns her living as a waitress, deflecting the sexual advances of her customers, including one persistent middle-aged man who tries to persuade her to compete as Miss Iceland.
She dedicates every free hour to writing, and is an extremely prolific writer – even if she keeps this passion quiet from her poet boyfriend, who values her more for her beauty and how it reflects on him.
The novel touches upon individual dreams vs societal expectations, a longing for an ideal world, the loneliness of ousiders, and a hint of the societal changes that are to come. Those changes, like the volcanoes referenced so frequently in this novel, are bubbling violently just beneath the calm surface.
Nevertheless, at its heart, Miss Iceland is a beautifully written quiet and reflective story, one which draws heavily upon the island’s stark nature and harsh environment and the characters’ tendency to stoic introspection.