#RivetingReviews: Rosie Eyre reviews THE MARK by Fríða Ísberg

For UK readers still recovering from the plebescital pain of 2016, the prospect of a novel about a hotly contested referendum dividing a nation may inspire some trepidation. Fortunately, the polemic at the heart of Fríða Ísberg’s The Mark is compelling enough to justify scratching the wound.

In the book, the nation in question is Iceland, set sometime in a dystopian near future, and the issue at stake is the rollout of mandatory ‘marking’ to demarcate empathetically upstanding citizens from those suffering from ‘moral disorders’. This ‘mark’ of moral soundness is conferred or denied by means of a standardised ‘empathy test’, which, we learn, began life in the psychiatry circles of the ‘national mental-health system’, before being coopted by politicians keen to signpost their moral credentials and progressively permeating every tier of society. Now, the mark’s champions are intent on making every Icelander submit to the test at risk of being excluded from swathes of social infrastructure, and its opponents are up in arms. 

Leading the ‘Yes’ campaign is the Icelandic Psychological Association, PSYCH, headed up by chief media spokesman and psychotherapy evangelist Ólafur ‘Óli’ Tandri Sveinbjörnsson, who soon finds himself at the centre of a menacing hate campaign for his devotion to the cause. Having been converted as a teenager to the virtues of ‘talking about our feelings’, as a reaction against his overbearingly unreconstructed father, Óli is convinced that the empathy test and the associated raft of ‘treatment’ measures prescribed to those who fail, coupled with obligatory ‘emotional skills’ education from the earliest age, is the key to building a ‘healthy’ society and nipping in the bud the antisocial crimes that threaten to tear it apart.

Meanwhile, driving the counter-offensive is the aptly acronymed pressure group MASC (‘Men Against Social Compulsion’) and their outspoken leader Magnús Geirsson, who argue that the empathy test is pitted against young men whose ‘emotional intelligence’ development lags behind that of girls. To seal their case, media-savvy Geirsson – fictional Iceland’s answer to Nigel Farage – and the MASC team cook up a series of video interviews exposing the ‘moral prejudice’ suffered by young men who’ve come a cropper for their ‘unmarked’ status, which instantly set social media aflame.

As referendum day edges closer and the opinion polls become ever tighter, as readers we’re left to negotiate the battle of the acronyms through the perspectives of diversely flawed characters on either side of the debate. Though Ísberg writes in third person, her clever use of direct point of view as we hopscotch between characters effectively presents us with our own empathy test, and one that operates on much more complex terms than the fictional test’s one-size-fits-all approach. 

‘When it comes down to it, an opinion is nothing but a decision about where you’re going to look and what you’re going to turn your back on,’ reflects one of the characters, the high-school social studies teacher Vetur, as she wrestles with her conscience on the eve of the vote. Yet while PYSCH’s crime prevention stats blinkeredly ignore the fact that empathy is far from a ‘perfect metric’ of moral calibre, and MASC’s heart string-tugging videos just as blindly refuse to acknowledge any potential benefits of the marking mandate, Ísberg’s absorbing narrative subtly invites us to see the argument from all sides, and offers a refreshing reminder of the power of fiction to restore nuance to an increasingly polarised world. 

Alongside the questions the book raises about where today’s growing emphasis on mental health might lead, and how this could play out against the populism, virtue signalling and echo chambers that define our social media age, The Mark offers a timely wider thought experiment into the effects on the population at large when a system cynically espoused by a self-interested ruling class comes to shape every realm of daily life, and what happens when imperfect technologies created by the few are deified to dictate the fates of the many – whether we like it or not.  

Cutting through the not-so dystopian angst, Ísberg’s quirky and drily humorous style provides ample moments of light relief, while joyfully swerving conventional imagery with some delightful descriptions. Larissa Kyzer’s translation is an equal treat, and a masterclass in crafting a translated narrative that is at once eminently readable and infused with the flavour of the original language and setting. 

The fictional ‘mark’ may divide opinions to the last, but with its fascinating concept, artful execution and admirable translation, Ísberg’s stirring novel makes an irresistible case for one of the standout translated titles of the summer.

Reviewed by Rosie Eyre


Written by Fríða Ísberg

Translated by Larissa Kyzer

Published by Faber (2024)

June 2024 #RivetingReviews titles are available to buy from bookshop.org.

Rosie Eyre is a literary translator working from French and Spanish. Her most recent translation is Julie
Survivor. Her translation of Guillaume Musso’s The Stranger in the Seine is forthcoming with Orion Books. She has been collaborating with the European Literature Network since 2020 and coordinates the Stephen Spender Prize for poetry in translation.

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Category: June 2024Reviews


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