Thursday, 18 October 2012

Everything's Coming Up Roses

When I first started my bout of Icelandic reading, I asked for a few recommendations, and my readers were happy to oblige.  Aside from the usual suspects of Halldór Laxness and Sjón, a book which came up a few times was Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir's novel The Greenhouse, one of many Icelandic works published this year by Amazon Crossing.  The winner of several awards, both in Iceland and elsewhere in Europe, it seemed like a good way to continue my current obsession...

The Greenhouse (translated by Brian FitzGibbon) introduces us to 22-year-old Arnljótur Thórir, a young Icelander who is about to embark on an exciting journey into the unknown.  Having inherited a love of horticulture from his mother, Lobbi (as his father calls him) is all set to fly off to a new job in an unspecified European country, restoring a world-famous rose garden in a monastery.

While he is taking a trip into the unknown, what he is walking away from is a little clearer.  He is still getting over his mother's untimely death in a car crash a couple of years back and is leaving his over-protective father and his Autistic twin brother behind.  Oh yes, and there's the small matter of the result of a few hours of passion in the family greenhouse - his baby daughter, Flóra Sól...

After a slightly unfortunate (and painful) start, Lobbi embarks on a lengthy, unhurried journey to the rose garden, somewhere in the heart of Europe.  As he drives through forests and villages, meeting new people on the way, you start to wonder if he's ever going to get to his destination.  Once he arrives at the monastery, the pace continues to crawl, but that's a good thing - as Lobbi himself discovers, it's the journey, not the destination that counts.

The Greenhouse is very much a Bildungsroman, one in which our young friend takes time out from the world to look around and think about what it is he wants from life.  In leaving his home territory and transplanting himself (like the roses he takes along) into a foreign climate, Lobbi is forcing himself to confront his issues.  It's very much a step into the unknown, at times coming across as a bit of a fairy-tale, as he discovers small restaurants hidden in the woods and tries to fit into the world of the monks.

This all makes him reevaluate his situation, the new experiences helping him to compare his old life with the new one.  It's a very different environment to the harsh Icelandic landscape:
"Can a person who has been brought up in the heart of a thick dark forest, where one has to beat a path through multiple layers of trees just to take a letter to the post office, have any conception of what it's like to spend one's entire childhood waiting for a single tree to grow?" p.62 (Amazon Crossing, 2012)
Then, just as he is adapting to his role as a rose gardener, he receives an unexpected visitor...

I greatly enjoyed The Greenhouse; it's the kind of book ideal for a couple of afternoons lounging about somewhere warm and slowly making your way through the pages.  The writing (and translation) is excellent, and there's also a dry sense of humour underpinning the story, with Lobbi (and his red hair) the butt of many a subtle joke.

He's a typical 22-year-old, sexually charged to the point of distraction, but also fairly shy, meaning that he misses certain obvious signals from women (a running joke is that several people actually think he's gay...). He's also constantly cringing from comments people make about the child he fathered from what he calls "a half-night stand" - every time he shows a picture of the blonde baby to the dark-complexioned natives, he is told that she doesn't have enough hair... 

There's a lot to like about this book, but it's not perfect.  A twist about two-thirds of the way through threatens to turn an intriguing, slow-burning story into a twee piece of chick-lit, but luckily the writer manages to keep the sugar to a minimum and comes up with a resolution to the story which works and satisfies the reader.  Still,it does feel like a bit of a girly book at times.

Nevertheless, The Greenhouse is a novel that most people will enjoy, literary enough to intrigue but with a character the reader cares about.  The man we see at the end of the 260 pages is very different to the immature youth we began the novel with; and if his future isn't quite settled, we can be sure that he's on the right path.  Everything (literally) is coming up roses :)