September 05, 2021

Summer Light, and Then Comes the Night

translated by Philip Roughton
Review by
The sixth novel from award-winning Icelandic author Jón Kalman Stefánsson is the story of a seaside community and its open secrets.
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A community center, a co-op, a post office, a depot—in the churchless seaside village of Icelandic author Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s conjuring, these are the hallowed spaces where unholy thoughts arise. His latest book to be translated into English, Summer Light, and Then Comes the Night is a loosely structured novel set in rural Iceland. Its world appears cemented in a far earlier time until the reader is yanked back to the modern age by delightfully unexpected mentions of Die Hard and other pop culture references.

Ágústa, the female post officer who reads all the mail, connects this village to the broader world. Here, news travels more frequently than its subjects do. The novel’s collective narrator is a (distinctly male) chorus of unnamed villagers who report the goings-on in the village beyond Ágústa’s divulgences. This chorus adds a suitably cozy, gossipy feel to a novel so concerned with secrets.

Desire—of a carnal, spiritual and intellectual nature—is the plot’s binding agent. In one case, a man’s zeal for Latin and astronomy sends the local Knitting Company belly up, and in another, the village police officer aches for nothing but to paint moorland birds. The majority of villagers experience desire in a more traditional form, however. 

It must be said that the narrator’s fascination with breasts is at times perplexing and serves no shrewd narrative goal (as the voyeuristic “we” narration of the neighborhood boys in Jeffery Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides does, by revealing the dark underpinnings of suburban male fantasies) beyond to say: These village men really like peeping decolletages. In one instance, a farmer named Krísten has a routine of jogging in a transparent top, inexplicably removing her bra partway through the exercise. (Ow!) One could read moments like this as a product of wishful thinking on the part of an unreliable “we” narrator, but one suspects they are endemic to Stefánsson’s own fictive reality. 

Stefánsson’s observational writing soars when he lingers over life’s mundane wonders—a steaming cup of tea, a cloudy sky undulating over a field, lunchmeat, the silence of fish—and his abundant cottagey humor fits the landscape. A supernatural event at the depot rounds out the mysteries of this universe, where even Reykjavik is a distant thought. 

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