As I sit here staring at a blank screen of a post to be written, I think the only thing I can fairly say about Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s Heaven and Hell is that it puzzled me. More than any book has done this year, perhaps even in the past few years, I am left a little speechless. You see, I am not sure what I think about this book. It is a very accomplished book. I can see that it is very good and has a lot of literary qualities. All the same, it left me feeling completely apathetic.
*sigh* I know this is an admission on my part that means I probably fail to understand very significant parts of this novel. So many of the bloggers I respect and look up to loved this book. But blogging is about honesty and I cannot pretend I liked something, let alone felt something very particular, about a novel that just did not seem to evoke much at all in me. Again, this is not to say that this is not a good novel. Perhaps the failing is solely mine or maybe even the particular time at which I chose to read it. I don’t know.
In its most basic form, Heaven and Hell is a story about the following, which I have copied from GoodReads because I could not try to summarise it more concisely myself:
In a remote part of Iceland, a boy and his friend Bárður join a boat to fish for cod. A winter storm surprises them out at sea and Bárður, who has forgotten his waterproof as he was too absorbed in ‘Paradise Lost’, succumbs to the ferocious cold and dies. Appalled by the death and by the fishermen’s callous ability to set about gutting the fatal catch, the boy leaves the village, intending to return the book to its owner. The extreme hardship and danger of the journey is of little consequence to him – he has already resolved to join his friend in death. But once in the town he immerses himself in the stories and lives of its inhabitants, and decides that he cannot be with his friend just yet.
The setting of the story, then, sets the novel apart from other stories about loss and grief and personal journeys. The remote Icelandic setting, the indistinct but definitely historic time period (I do not think a year is ever actually mentioned?) all contribute to the feel of the novel that is quite “other”, somehow, and a little forlorn as well.
But what really sets this book apart is the writing style and particularly the narrator. Or narrators really; for this story is told by the dead of the community it is set in. Thus, the whole story is captured by a plural voice, which is all-knowing about both the individual and the communal & about the present, the past, and the future. It often juxtaposes and bundles individual thought, feeling, or acts with seemingly universal truths in one sentence, or one paragraph.
This plural narratorship combined with its poetic language is definitely what gives Stefánsson’s book its distinct feel. I fear it is also what made me unable to engage with the story fully. For through the communal and the plural, through the universal truths that almost seem too obvious (I hesitantly add: bordering on trite), as a reader I was constantly held at a distance. This was compounded by the long sentences interspersed with commas, that I constantly felt deserved my attention but however much I tried I ended up skimming them instead.
There are interesting themes pinpointed in this novel. There are questions to be discussed. For example, how do the different stories we are told about a large range of characters relate to each other? What exactly are the major themes of this novel except for the question of meaning in life (and in death)? What to say about the changes from communal to individual stories and perspectives, where in the latter half of the novel the individual is given just a little more room than in the first half? What does it say about me as a reader that it was exactly that second half that I could engage with a little bit more, was it the fact that there was a glimpse of individuality there – does the communal feel too stifling to me, really?
But really, I feel I cannot do this book justice because I couldn’t appreciate it as I feel it probably deserves to be appreciated. I couldn’t give it my full attention, however much I tried not to drift to other thoughts. I almost feel I should apologise to the book. But then again, I try to remind myself that there should be no shame in “not getting” a book sometimes, that reading “is what it is” at a particular moment in time, that there is always the possibility of giving it another try when the mood might be right. Or that perhaps the book just was not for me.