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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Perfect Landscape

Ragna Sigurdardottir

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Title: The Perfect Landscape
Author: Ragna Sigurdardottir
Genre: Novel
Written: 2009 (Eng. 2012)
Length: 213 pages
Original in: Icelandic
Availability: The Perfect Landscape - US
The Perfect Landscape - UK
The Perfect Landscape - Canada
The Perfect Landscape - India
  • Icelandic title: Hið fullkomna landslag
  • Translated by Sarah Bowen

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Our Assessment:

B- : good premise, but plotting too uneven and the characters too thin

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The Perfect Landscape begins with Hanna having just returned to Iceland after years of living in Holland, and starting a new job as director of the Annexe, part of a larger art exhibiting institution where it is "an avant-garde exhibition space, the gallery's trump card in international terms". She is immediately confronted by a new acquisition, a painting of a grove of birch trees, "remarkably like the work of Gudrun Johannsdottir, one of the country's foremost twentieth-century painters", bought at auction for eight million kronur and donated to the gallery. They soon name the untitled painting 'The Birches'. And, as it happens, Hanna wrote her dissertation on Gudrun.
       'The Birches' is an impressive addition to the gallery's collection -- if authentic. And while wanting to be careful about voicing suspicions too loudly too soon, there are some reasons to doubt that it is a real Gudrun. Together with one of the gallery's other employees, Steinn, the conservator, Hanna slowly peels back the layers, as it were, and discovers there's a lot more going on underneath, from the auction records to what the painting was painted on (or rather: over).
       Ragna -- who studied fine arts in the Netherlands -- offers a fairly intriguing art-mystery surrounding the painting, which is only slowly pieced together. Flash-back chapters that take the story further afield make for a bigger picture of the complexities of the art world -- eventually ranging from the humblest artist to one of the world's wealthiest collectors.
       It's not so much that Ragna has bitten off more than she can chew -- though arguably in places she has -- but rather the somewhat lumbering presentation that leaves the book with less tension and mystery than its premise would allow for. The selective backstories are the least of it, but certainly Hanna is an underdeveloped character, plopped into the story for a specific purpose (and then easily done away with): she leaves behind her family in the Netherlands -- she is married, with a near-grown child -- but there's almost no mention of these two important people in her life she's now so far away from. (Yes, the marriage is troubled -- he's seeing someone else -- but one would imagine there would still be more regular contact.) Then there's conservator Steinn's eye-trouble, which veers from barely-noticed to catastrophic to no big deal. Finally, there's a young lad growing up in difficult circumstances who is part of a gang who defile various spaces with their graffiti, and whom Hanna hopes to save; heart-warming though that whole maudlin storyline may be, it is entirely unconvincingly tacked onto the rest of the story and becomes rather a distraction.
       The complexities of the story (or stories) behind 'The Birches' contrasts with the simplistic treatment of so much else in the novel. Most of the characters are poorly developed, while attention is practically lavished on poor little Kari, the lost boy Hanna hopes to redeem, whose story would be better suited to another novel entirely (he has little or no place here). The jumps to elsewhere -- Moscow, Copenhagen -- also aren't ideally integrated in the larger story.
       There's lots of potential in many of these scenes and interactions, but too often the follow-through just isn't quite there; The Perfect Landscape only rarely goes far and deep enough. There's a lot of promise here -- in various characters' (and paintings') stories -- but Ragna rarely manages to do enough with them effectively, and she does juggle rather much here. It makes for a read that is intriguing in parts, but also feels rather frustrating incomplete.

- M.A.Orthofer, 11 November 2012

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The Perfect Landscape: Ragna Sigurðardóttir: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Icelandic author Ragna Sigurðardóttir was born in 1962.

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© 2012 the complete review

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