Jónas has decided to kill himself. He’s divorced, his ex-wife has revealed that his beloved daughter is actually the child of another man, and his mother is swiftly sinking into senility. Nothing in his life has meaning any more. Even his chats with his neighbour Svanur only confirm his sense of middle-aged man superfluity. And so he decides it’s time to put an end to it all. How and when, of course, are another question. Jónas decides that, to avoid his daughter finding his body, he will have to kill himself abroad and so he decides to seek out the most dangerous place in the world. And so he arrives at the Hotel Silence, in a grim postwar town, where he will discover – much to his surprise – that, with a little effort, many things that are broken can in fact be mended.
I was attracted by this novel because it promised to be another book in the vein of later-life stories, such as Britt-Marie Was Here and The Secret Diary of Hendrick Groen. It isn’t quite like that: it has something of the same heartwarming quality, but it has a soberer core to it, as you’d expect from the subject matter. Nor was Jónas as old as I imagined from the publisher’s blurb: he’s an active middle aged man who has simply been ground down by life, and whose change of scene provokes a deep reassessment. Perhaps it’s closer kin to those books in which a foreign country allows a character to understand something that would have been impossible in their native environment: A Room with a View, perhaps, with added landmines and scars both mental and emotional.
Jónas’s destination is never named. It’s a war-torn country, formerly a popular tourist destination with ancient ruins and elegant squares, restaurants and baths, but now little more than a heap of modern ruins. Brutalised by their recent history, robbed of most of their young men, the people are only just beginning to pull themselves back together, and visitors are few – and suspicious. Jónas is one of only three visitors at the Hotel Silence, along with a slimy, untrustworthy creep trying to make a few quick bucks before normal service resumes, and a film actress working on a worthy documentary. But it’s with the members of staff that he finds an unexpected intimacy developing.
Having arrived at the Hotel Silence with little luggage except a toolbox (in case he needs to put up a hook to hang himself), Jónas decides he might as well make himself useful in his last few days. And so he begins with little tasks: fixing hinges, replacing light-bulbs, trying to clear the water that runs red with rust and dust. The young proprietors of the hotel – fragile, resolute May, with her traumatised young son Adam; and her quietly determined brother Fifi – shyly begin asking for further help. And, before Jónas knows it, he begins to be drawn into this curious world where so much of ordinary life has been lost, and yet tiny acts of kindness can begin to raise civilisation from the ashes.
I haven’t come across Ólafsdóttir before, but I found her writing thoughtful and gentle. The book is peppered with quotes from poetry and from the works of Nietzsche (the overly sensitive Jónas was, perhaps inevitably, a student of the philosopher), and it’s curiously episodic in nature. We see vignettes of Jónas’s life, rather than the full-depth novel I was expecting, and there’s occasionally something in his narration which makes the unnamed city feel allegorical in its significance. It’s quite a short book and the end feels strangely unresolved – we don’t get as much of a sense of closure as you’d expect – but perhaps that’s the point. I’d be interested to know, once other people have read it, what you think actually happens. Yes, I’d have liked to have spent a little more time with the characters, but I think what Olafsdottir achieves is a melancholy, beautiful affirmation of the human spirit.
I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review.