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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Miss Iceland

Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir

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To purchase Miss Iceland

Title: Miss Iceland
Author: Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir
Genre: Novel
Written: 2018 (Eng. 2020)
Length: 250 pages
Original in: icelandic
Availability: Miss Iceland - US
Miss Iceland - UK
Miss Iceland - Canada
Miss Islande - France
Miss Islanda - Italia
  • Icelandic title: Ungfrú Ísland
  • Translated by Brian FitzGibbon

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Our Assessment:

B+ : revealing slices of 1960s Icelandic life

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist . 1/8/2020 .
Fréttablaðið . 6/12/2018 Kolbrún Bergþórsdóttir
Le Monde . 24/10/2019 Camille Laurens
The Washington Post . 16/6/2020 Jane Smiley

  From the Reviews:
  • "In previous books, Ms Audur Ava Olafsdottir occasionally relied too much on eccentric foibles and hare-brained antics. In Miss Iceland she judiciously downplays the oddities, particularly when exploring weighty issues such as sexual harassment and discrimination. In other welcome changes, she incorporates world events and numerous references to Iceland's rich literature. And yet this captivating novel's finest component is its endearing heroine who, at her journey's end, has learned to follow her dreams but know her limits." -

  • "Auður Ava skrifar fallegan, fágaðan og ljóðrænan stíl en mikill þungi er þar undirliggjandi. Henni tekst einkar vel að lýsa tíðaranda þar sem ætlast er til að konur séu eiginkonur og mæður og engin ástæða er talin til að sköpunarþrá þeirra og kraftur fái farveg. Þessu kemur höfundur, sem býr yfir miklum mannskilningi, feiknavel til skila án þess að fordæma eða predika. Húmorinn í verkinu er síðan afar vel heppnaður, bæði lúmskur og beittur." - Kolbrún Bergþórsdóttir, Fréttablaðið

  • "(S)he does a brilliant job of conveying, sentence by sentence and word by word, the exotic nature of Icelandic life, its harshness, its connection to the land and to history, and its amusing qualities (including the vividness of dreams -- when I was in Iceland in 1977, I had the most vivid dreams of my life). (...) The sexism and homophobia Olafsdottir portrays were not unusual for the time, but she surrounds it so precisely with details about life in Iceland that it seems to glow with renewed fervor." - Jane Smiley, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Miss Iceland is set in the early 1960s, mostly in Iceland, and it is narrated by Hekla Gottskálksdóttir, who moves to Reykjavík from her native Dalir in the north-western part of the country as soon as she can, determined to become a writer. Hers is a nearly single-minded obsession; as she explains to a friend:

I can't let it go, Ísey. Writing. It's my lifeline. I have nothing else. Imagination is the only thing I have.
       Yet both in her life and in her story her writing is not so much at the forefront but more like a slow (white-)hot burn in the background, the presentation subdued, almost -- or often actually -- not to attract attention. When she moves in with an ambitious young poet who is working as a librarian, she doesn't even tell him she also writes, and while she has actually already published some pieces in prestigious publications, she has only done so under pseudonyms; when she reveals one of them her poet-boyfriend who has a small place in the literary circle that congregates at: "Mokka, the café where all the Reykjavík poets hang out" is stunned:
“I used a male name.”
     He looks me sternly in the eye.
     “What pseudonym, may I ask?”
     I hesitate.
     “Sigtryggur frá Saurum.”
     He leaps to his feet.
     “Are you Sigtryggur frá Saurum ? We thought he was one of us. We knew it was a pseudonym, but didn't know which one of us it was.”
       Eventually the would-be poet does see just how possessed she is:
If you're not working, you're writing. If you're not writing, you're reading. You'd drain your own veins if you ran out of ink. Sometimes I feel you only moved in with me to have a roof over your head.
       In contrast, he struggles to come up with anything -- more interested in being a poet than actually writing poetry. Hekla, who has no place at Mokka -- not least because of her sex -- cares practically nothing about recognition or being seen as a writer; her passion is almost entirely the actual creative act, and the only thing that is important to her about how she lives is managing it in such a way that she has as much time to write as she can.
       Two close friends from back home offer additional support -- and points of reference and comparison --, even (or in particular) as they suffer from their own fates. The generous Davíd Jón John Johnsson is a homosexual who is forever grateful to Hekla:
You saved my life, Hekla. When we became friends, people left me in peace. I thought to myself: she's like me.
       The two remain devoted to each other, with Jón John encouraging her writing and offering what support he can -- including in getting her books (including, eventually, Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex), a typewriter, and, repeatedly, a place to live. He, however, suffers greatly as a homosexual in an Iceland that has little tolerance for what is considered deviant behavior. His physical longings can be fulfilled, but the emotional void remains in this society where few are willing to publicly accept and acknowledge same-sex love: as he complains:
Men only want to sleep with me when they're drunk, they don't want to talk afterwards and be friends. While they're pulling up their trousers, they make you swear three times that you won't tell anyone.
       Many of the men he sleeps with are married or have girlfriends, but he hates the fact that he can't openly be who he wants to be:
     I don't want to be like them and live some secret game. I just want to love a guy like me. I want to hold his hand on the street.
       Jón John goes out on fishing boats to earn money, but has to keep his true nature hidden; even so, he suffers greatly for it.
       Meanwhile, Hekla's childhood friend Ísey escaped from their provincial home and has settled into -- and is now overwhelmed by -- domestic life, summing up her life too easily:
     It was so boxed in back home, the mountain lay on the other side of the field fence, I wanted to go away. I fell in love. I got pregnant. Next summer I'll be alone with two small children in a basement in Nordurmýri. Twenty-two years old.
       She also writes, though mostly only in what amounts to a diary. Her husband seems nice enough, but is barely literate, while Ísey clearly is bookish -- missing being able to visit the library regularly. Her fate is the usual one for a woman in those times, and she worries about being crushed by it, even as she fights it. Hekla remains a lifeline for her -- while her example remains a warning to Hekla.
       For a time, Hekla works as a waitress, where taking the abuse and unwanted attention of the male customers is taken to be a given; the staff have some countermeasures, but on the whole everyone simply accepts it. Hekla too is harassed but, as with so much in the story, she doesn't harp on it, or even express what would certainly be justified outrage. She is certainly not indifferent to these wrongs in society and behavior, but as throughout finds it sufficient to observe and note them: her true (and more effective) subversion of the status quo comes through her dedication to the act of writing.
       A variation on the harassment -- subtler, but also more odious -- involves, as she's apparently attractive, the continuing effort to get her to participate in the Miss Iceland-competition -- yet another false promise of escape (as she is also repeatedly warned; in any case, she is not seriously tempted).
       The Iceland of the times is small and, ultimately stifling, even with an active and enthusiastic literary scene. As a woman, Hekla faces even more hurdles -- even though a publisher who reads one her manuscripts notes about it: "to be honest I would have thought it had been written by a man ..."; he ultimately shies away from accepting it because:
The fact of the matter is that this is too different from the kind of material we publish for us to be able to publish it ...
       Hekla does ultimately break out -- or is pulled out, by Jón John, who understands that, for himself and for her, they simply can not live the lives they want to on the island. A nice finishing touch is that her book, at least, will apparently see the light of the day there -- though, tellingly, under circumstances that clearly show that not much (much less enough) has changed yet ......
       The narrative, like the protagonist herself, is restrained, almost neutral in its description. It is effective: most of what is described speaks for itself -- and, admittedly, Jón John and Ísey, with their protests, are literally mouthpieces for many of the flaws of this society. Along the way, it also offers a neat picture of early 1960s Iceland, from the shared kitchens and bathrooms to the (would-be) littérateurs of the day to, more generally, nature there, from the cold to volcanic eruptions.
       Miss Iceland is well done, and quite an impressive work.

- M.A.Orthofer, 5 June 2020

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Miss Iceland: Reviews: Other books by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Icelandic author Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir was born in 1958.

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© 2020 the complete review

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