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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Whispering Muse


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To purchase The Whispering Muse

Title: The Whispering Muse
Author: Sjón
Genre: Novel
Written: 2005 (Eng. 2012)
Length: 141 pages
Original in: Icelandic
Availability: The Whispering Muse - US
The Whispering Muse - UK
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The Whispering Muse - India
  • Icelandic title: Argóarflísin
  • Translated by Victoria Cribb

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Our Assessment:

B+ : nicely presented contrasted tales

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 22/6/2010 Michel Faber
The Independent . 16/6/2010 Barry Forshaw
TLS . 7/9/2012 Lucy Dallas
Wall Street Journal . 11/5/2013 Sam Sacks
World Literature Today . 3-4/2013 Christopher Willard

  From the Reviews:
  • "Whether it truly gels as a novel, and whether it achieves the right balance between arch drollery and moral seriousness, I don't know. The main test of a book like this is not how incisively one can analyse it, but whether it lingers in the mind and takes root there. Give it a year, or 3,000, and let's see." - Michel Faber, The Guardian

  • "Although his prose here is economical (and perfectly served by Victoria Cribb's translation), the effect of The Whispering Muse is prismatic: the reader feels that just beneath the surface there are strange and luminous things moving, leaving a series of small hidden detonations." - Barry Forshaw, The Independent

  • "Sjón merrily borrows from Apollonius, Euripides and Ovid and from two Icelandic writers, Hrafn Valdimarsson and Matthias Thordarson fra Moum, giving all his sources at the end of the book. What he makes of these sources is funny, strange, provoking and disturbing; darkness with a light touch." - Lucy Dallas, Times Literary Supplement

  • "In puckishly conflating the marvelous and the pedestrian, Sjón adapts a number of sources" - Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal

  • "Seamlessly translated by Victoria Cribb, the book suggests there are those who scrawl along, ultimately becoming connoisseurs of their own drab blatherskite, and those who are provided with the gift of a compelling tongue. Here, no story stands alone." - Christopher Willard, World Literature Today

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:

       The narrator of The Whispering Muse is Valdimar Haraldsson, a man whose chief preoccupation in life has been studying: "the link between fish consumption and the superiority of the Nordic race". For twenty years he published a journal devoted to 'Fish and Culture'; he also spent World War II in Germany, working for: "the German broadcasting service, reading the news in Icelandic". If not an outright Nazi (he doesn't admit to that), ideologically he certainly was on board with the program; he also is a prim and proper type of the blandest sort -- as suggested also by the title of his self-published autobiography: Memoirs of a Herring Inspector.
       A few years after the war, the father of a like-minded young man ("murdered on the day peace was declared, in a Bierkeller brawl in Vienna") invites the retired Valdimar for a little get away, a trip on one of his merchant vessels, the MS Elizabet Jung-Olsen as it sails from Norway to Turkey and then Soviet Georgia. In April 1949 they set out, and this account focuses on Valdimar's time aboard. They still have to pick up their freight -- paper pulp -- so it's slow- (and no) going in the early days. Valdimar hopes to edify one and all with informative titbits (and lectures) about the importance of fish in the diet, but is disappointed to find it isn't even on the menu until he hauls one in; meanwhile, entertainment on board is instead provided in the form of the rather more fantastical stories of the second mate, Caeneus.
       Yes, the second mate is a figure mentioned in Appollonius and Ovid, and he recounts his adventures on an earlier sea voyage -- that of the Argo. The contrast between mythical adventure on the grandest scale and small-minded Valdimar's documentation of the events on the MS Elizabet Jung-Olsen as they wait to really get going is a stark one, and one effectively and amusingly presented by Sjón, especially when fish-out-of-water Valdimar decides this is all a bit much for him, and explains he'd rather disembark before they leave Nordic waters, only to find myth has rather overtaken events.
       With it's nicely told stories -- Caeneus' grand, as well as Valdimar's detached accounts (even of horrific events such as a workplace accident he witnesses) -- and mix of myth and everyday The Whispering Muse is an agreeable little novel that's also quite thought-provoking beyond the surface of the narrative(s).

- M.A.Orthofer, 19 May 2013

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The Whispering Muse: Reviews: Sjón: Other books by Sjón under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Icelandic author Sjón (Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson) was born in 1962.

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© 2013-2016 the complete review

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