A feminist coming of age tale, an elegy to the plight of the working class and the corrosive effects of social and economic inequality, and a poetic window into the arrival of modernity in a tiny industrial town, Salka Valka is a novel of epic proportions, living and breathing with its expansive cast of characters, filled with tenderness, humor, and remarkable pathos. On a mid-winter night, an eleven-year-old Salvör and her unmarried mother Sigurlína disembark at the remote, run-down fishing village of Óseyri, where life is lived in fish and consists of fish. The two women struggle to make their way amidst the domineering, salt-worn men of the town and their unsolicited attention, and, after Sigurlína's untimely death, Salvör pays for her funeral and walks home alone, precipitating her coming of age as a daring, strong-willed young woman who chops off her hair, earns her own wages, educates herself through political and philosophical texts, and, most significantly, becomes an advocate for the town's working class, ultimately organizing a local chapter of the seamen's union.
A second translation arrives as an affirmation of enduring value and an implicit admission of shortcoming: We didn’t do you justice the first time around ... Such is the fate of the magnificent Icelandic writer Halldór Laxness, whose early novel Salka Valka, first rendered into English in 1936, now sports an able, fresh translation by Philip Roughton that restores some vital passages in the process ... This is a better novel (richer, deeper) than anything else you’re likely to meet this year. Its people are as real as you or me—as are its shorebirds and its blizzards and its dreams and its cows ... This is Laxness’s keenest portrayal of romantic love ... Icelanders have long taken justifiable pride in the centrality of women in Laxness’s fiction. Arguably, his finest creations are female: fanciful girls, disillusioned young women, desperate mothers, maundering but sage old ladies.
[Laxness'] first attempt to integrate his sense of socialism’s liberatory promise into a cohesive artistic vision ... The language of the various worldviews that dominate the village seep subtly into the initially detached narration, inflecting the story with a claustrophobic sense of how ideology shapes perception ... By turns caustic and lyrical, funny and forlorn, Salka Valka is far from a triumphant portrait of the labor movement ... Perhaps the novel is best considered as a meditation on failure: on not living up to one’s ideals or sustaining a movement, as well as the more existential failures behind these strategic ones—the failure of characters to reach beyond the bounds of their selves, to overcome the fundamental loneliness at the core of Laxness’s melancholy vision. This loneliness is the dark undercurrent of Salka Valka, an invisible, inexorable hindrance to meaningful connection and collective action.
Readers who’ve never heard of this fierce, crude, uncompromising, independent, isolated, enterprising, vulnerable daughter of Iceland’s frigid sea and narrow fjords will meet a character who would be as at home at today’s #MeToo rallies as she was nearly a century ago in the tiny village of Óseyr ... Steeped in Iceland’s foundational epics, Laxness uses his villagers like a Greek chorus — not quite individuated but critically important. While their lives are unspeakably hard, their hearts thrum with Iceland’s proud heritage ... In other places, Laxness wields his chorus as an object of humor, and in yet others as unsympathetic, gossipy observers of Salka’s struggle to survive after Sigurlína dies and Steinƥór and Arnaldur compete for her heart ... Doubtless, modern-day feminists will see in Salka an admirable example of female fortitude and resolve. And certainly, she is that. But she’s also much more. She is the ultimate realist, and she applies her clear-eyed vision with equal intensity to the price of fish as to the price love will exact on her heart.