Monday, 1 October 2012

A Promise is a Promise...

In the middle of my recent spate of Icelandic books, I read Sarah Moss' Names for the Sea, a non-fiction book about a year an English woman spent in Iceland.  While entertaining, it was very much an outsider's view of the country and left me wishing that there had been a little more insight into Icelandic life.

Which is when I spotted another book on the subject, this time written by a man who had spent much of his youth shuttling between Iceland, England and Australia.  Luckily enough, I was able to obtain a review copy from the publisher, University of Queensland Press (UQP), to see how the insider's point of view compared to the outsider's...

The Promise of Iceland was written by Australian university lecturer Kári Gíslason, possibly to work through some of the events of his earlier life.  Gíslason was born in Iceland to an Anglo-Australian mother, the result of a lengthy affair she had with a married Icelandic man.  Despite the welcoming attitude of most Icelanders to any child, Gíslason's mother decided to respect the wishes of the reticent father, keeping his identity a secret for the best part of three decades.

As surprising as this decision was, what was even more astonishing was that the son also decided to respect his mother's wishes, refusing to break his mother's promise, even though it caused financial and social hardship.  Iceland is all about family, and being unable to acknowledge your heritage makes you an outsider in a country which should be your own.  Shuttled between England, Iceland and Australia, young Kári grows up with his secret, unwilling to tell any of the friends and family who would have been only to eager to help out.  Until, one day, he finally decides that it's time for everyone to face the truth...

The Promise of Iceland is a compelling narrative, exploring Gíslason's early life and providing a welcome insight into Icelandic culture.  Many of the features appearing in other Icelandic books I've read are highlighted here, such as the small, closed society and the relative freedom of childhood.  When Gíslason's mother, Susan, is pregnant with her son, she fears that her status as a single mum will cause her problems with her employers - which is not the case at all.  In fact, her surly boss is very happy for her (as is her landlord):
It was a conversation that was repeated almost word for word when she spoke to her landlord, Brynjólfur, about whether she would be able to stay in her apartment in Sólvallagata.
"What do you mean?" he said.
"Now that I'm having a baby."
"What did you think we'd do, dear?  Kick you out?"
That's exactly what she'd thought.  She couldn't quite believe that a child could be so welcomed. p.72 (University of Queensland Press, 2012) 
In England or Australia in 1972, Susan would almost definitely have ended up homeless and unemployed...

As you may have gathered, for much of the book, The Promise of Iceland is just as much about Susan as it is about Kári himself.  In telling us about her, the writer attempts to make the reader understand why he agreed to keep her promise.  After only reading the blurb, I idly wondered why he thought he had the right to break this promise at all.  Once I'd actually read some of the book, I was more amazed at his even considering not outing his father.  The writer attempts to explain his reasoning for making his own promise to his father at the age of seventeen:
The point is that I wanted to do the right thing, by both my parents and my country.  I wanted to do the loving thing and, in 1990, it seemed positively wrong to be the ruin of his family life. (p.130)
Later his attitude changes as he comes to feel that he has been robbed of the family life he deserves.  We feel his tension as he returns, once again, to Iceland, this time to meet his half-brothers and sisters...

There are obvious comparisons with Names for the Sea, and the same themes pop up, whether it's the attitude towards children, the obsession with coffee and knitting, or Reykjavik's small-town atmosphere (at one point the writer regularly bumps into Vigdís Finnbogadóttir in a shop - a woman who was the country's President at the time!).  In other ways though, Gíslason's background means that The Promise of Iceland is a very different book.  Moss was a tourist; Gíslason was a (semi-) native.  Moss visited the distant Westfjord islands; Gísalason lived and worked there.  Where Moss was frustratingly introspective at times, Gíslason opens the country up for us.

All of which makes The Promise of Iceland an excellent work.  Well written, fascinating and absorbing, the book pulls the reader along on Kári's search for closure and fulfilment, making us hope he can find the acknowledgement he's after.  You may think that the issue would have lost most of its significance after so much time, but you'd be wrong.  You see, for much of his life, Kári's family name was Reid, one belonging to the man his mother married (and was separated from) long before her son was born.  Gíslason is actually the patronymic derived from the name of his father, Gísli.  Just by using his full name on the cover, the writer is showing how much his identity means to him...