To say that Icelanders love literature may be an understatement. Per capita, Iceland has more books published and more books read than anywhere else in the world, and Reykjavík is well known for its authors and independent bookstores. But in the early 1960s, it was hard for a woman to penetrate Reykjavík’s artistic community. In her new novel, Miss Iceland, Icelandic writer Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir explores this conflict.
Named after a dormant volcano by her weather-obsessed father, Hekla leaves her rural home in Dalir for Reykjavík with a copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses and an English–Icelandic dictionary. She moves in with her former classmate Jon, a gay man who has moved to the capital with his sewing machine in hopes of getting a job designing costumes for the theater. But when Jon and Hekla find themselves firmly on the outside of their dreams, Jon accepts arduous work on local fishing trawlers, hoping to travel to a place where he is free to love whomever he chooses. At night after waitressing at the Hotel Berg, where avoiding the wandering hands of male patrons is as much a part of her day as serving coffee, Hekla stays up late to write.
Even after Hekla begins dating a poet, she is unable to break into the male-dominated literary cafe crowd. When she reveals her true vocation (and prolific output) to her boyfriend, the relationship falls apart, leaving her to wonder if she can pursue her dreams in Iceland at all.
Ólafsdóttir is an art historian and writer whose work is just beginning to receive the attention it deserves in the United States. This quietly moving tale of friendship and artistic fulfillment will appeal to readers of Elena Ferrante and Margaret Atwood, and the unusual setting offers an interesting twist on the portrait of an artist as a young woman.