#RivetingReviews: West Camel reviews THE BOOK OF REYKJAVIK edited by Vera Júlíusdóttir & Becca Parkinson

In his preface to this latest in Comma’s Reading the City series, one of Reykjavik’s greatest literary exports, Sjón, describes his native city in equivocal terms – a ‘misshapen urban cluster’ that for centuries was regarded with disdain, even by its own residents, and was only thought of ‘as a setting for stories and as a place one could belong to’ in the 1930s. 

These sentiments seem to be borne out by many of the stories in this collection. The protagonist of the opening piece, ‘Island’ by Friðgeir Einarsson, is a returning native, but he considers himself essentially a foreigner, that is until he meets a childhood acquaintance. 

The protagonists of Einar Már Guðmundsson’s ‘The Gardeners’ are new arrivals in the city too – farmers from the remote north. With their ‘fingers that possess a knowledge that has been lost’ they transform the new housing plots of the fast-growing city into attractive, sought-after gardens, as ‘hill and moor beat a retreat’. 

It seems from this collection that Reykjavik remains in this state of flux – expanding into the dramatic countryside that surrounds it, but not yet settled into a place its residents can call home. Björn Halldórsson’s ‘Two Foxes’ relates one man’s encounters with arctic foxes – once as a child on a countryside trip; and once as an adult and a resident of Reykjavik’s suburban sprawl, where it’s unclear who is on whose territory. And in ‘Incursion’ by Þórarinn Eldjárn, the residents of a new housing development seem to hear the sounds of the old lumberyard on which their flats have been built. It’s an illusion – the noises come from the neighbourhood starlings, mimicking the sounds of the area’s previous industrial activities. Perhaps most significant though is the fact that the starlings are newcomers too, only arriving in Iceland in the twentieth century.  

But in Fríða Ísberg’s ‘Home’, we find none of this sense of a newly settled, transient or liminal place; instead we have an experience familiar especially to the female citizens of much longer-established towns and cities. A young woman is walking home alone from a night out – conscious of her vulnerability, fearful of potential attackers, constantly vigilant, but also reflecting on the events of her evening and the contents of the fridge ahead of her. It seems that Reykjavik, which has become ‘a destination in its own right’ and a ‘hip metropolis’, as editor Vera Júlíusdóttir states in her introduction, now shares with other such cities the problem of women’s safety, despite its reputation as a ‘supposed paradise of gender equality’. 

The Reykjavik of this collection is new and vibrant, but is somehow still rooted outside its own location – a frontier town only just starting to get used to the fact that it has its own gravitational pull. These pieces, however, go a fair distance in exploring this city’s contradictions, mapping its contemporary character, and establishing it, as Sjón describes, ‘as a setting for stories’.

Reviewed by West Camel

THE BOOK OF REYKJAVIK 

Edited by Vera Júlíusdóttir & Becca Parkinson

Published by Comma Press (2021)

August 2021 #RivetingReviews titles are available to buy from bookshop.org.


West Camel is a writer, reviewer and editor. He edited Dalkey Archive’s Best European Fiction 2015, and is currently working for new press Orenda Books. His debut novel, Attend, is out now.

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