One of Iceland's most esteemed writers offers the story of Hekla, a brilliant young woman named after an active volcano who longs to make it as a writer in 1960s Iceland, where the men she hopes will publish or mentor her think she would have a better shot at winning a local beauty contest.
I have been on the lookout for books that will transport readers to another time and place. Icelandic novelist and playwright Audur Ava Ólafsdóttir's atmospheric sixth novel, Miss Iceland, is just the ticket ... Hekla's visits, bearing library books, boxes of canapés, toys, and adult conversation, are a lifeline for Ísey, just as these mutually supportive friendships are a ray of light in Ólafsdóttir's novel. But so, too, is Hekla's unusual voice — reticent but firm, straightforward but wry, melancholic with an undercurrent of irony ... quietly mesmerizing.
[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 ... Olafsdottir’s novel is not autobiographical — most of it takes place in 1963, when Olafsdottir, born in 1958, was five. But she must have been a very observant child, because the distinctive nature of every scene and every character takes hold of the reader immediately ... 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.
The genius of Miss Iceland is that it uses an elegant fictional narrative to establish in literary form a continuity between the sexist '60s and the present day ... Those who might think the author chose the easy way out—setting her novel in the '60s, so as not to disturb the sensibilities of contemporary 'woke' men—would be mistaken. The book's setting does more to reveal how little we've in fact progressed over the past half century ... The sparse prose of the book is one of its best qualities. The uniquely constructed narrative flows quickly, lightly. It may seem trite to forever be comparing modern Icelandic literature to Viking sagas, but there is an epic saga-like quality to the prose. Although a linear, coherent narrative emerges, the text is sub-divided into short passages with pompous headings. Characters speak in declamations of poetic profundity, sparse as the landscape yet potent with meaning. Despite the book's quick pace and light touch, its characters are fully formed and richly portrayed ... Miss Iceland is a beautiful book. It is at once a poetic, light-hearted narrative filled with endearing characters; and yet also a sharply edged social critique that is caustic and righteous in its portrayal of the enduring nature of sexism, misogyny and homophobia.