By Ted Worthington
Iceland is a place known for the written word. Its 13th-century sagas are a priceless treasure of world literature, but when my sister returned from a visit she found much more than dusty tales of pillage and plunder. She brought me several contemporary works that show that the tradition of stories has not diminished.
The Land of Love and Ruins is a prize-winning example of contemporary Icelandic fiction by Oddny Eir. Published in 2011 and so far the author’s only work translated into English, the book is composed of diary entries that penned by an unnamed woman, likely the author herself (she has written several other semi-autobiographical novels), as she pursues love, understanding, and a place to call home.
At times accompanied by her ornithologist boyfriend, Birdy, and at times by her archaeologist brother, Owlie, the narrator traverses Iceland and other European destinations as she contemplates the strong pull of the past, the immediacy of the present, and the uncertainty of the future.
The past is everywhere in Iceland, from the archaeology digs her brother uncovers to the legends and myths of every farmhouse and field. It inhabits the foggy, cool landscape filled with witches and saints, hermits and heroes that the diarist and her boyfriend encounter while traveling backroads, sleeping in sheds and turf houses, soaking in the tales found in every corner of the island.
As the narrator explores Iceland’s past, she ruminates on her country’s present and future, confronted daily by the consequences of the 2008 economic collapse. (fun fact: the tiny country was the only nation to jail bankers responsible for the financial crisis). What will become of Iceland? Will it be sold to the highest bidder? And will she fit into this new Iceland? And her Birdy, too? Where will they live and how?
The book is filled with expressions of deep love along with kernels of wisdom and understanding that only comes through living. It is a book more of Iceland than about Iceland, less a description of the physical localities, than an exploration of the feelings those places evoke. The book reveals an Iceland of stories, of stories of stories, layered in a thousand years of the written word, much like the strata in an archaeological dig. Icelanders, in turn, are portrayed as a tough, hardy breed that suffer yet still live lives worth telling.