Book Review: Moonstone by Sjón (Trans. by Victoria Cribb)

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Bjork collaborator’s potent novella is a celebration of silent cinema and elegy to the undocumented history of Iceland’s queer culture.

Born in Reykjavik, Sjón is considered to be one of Iceland’s most significant contemporary writers. Initially known to English-speaking audiences for his collaborations with Bjork which began with indie pop pioneers The Sugarcubes and continued through to her 2011 album Biophilia. More recently he contributed to the Museum of Modern Art’s Bjork retrospective. The creative partnership was rewarded with an Oscar nomination for the song I’ve Seen It All from the soundtrack to Lars von Trier’s feature film Dancer in the Dark.

Inspired by modernist poetry and the work of David Bowie he published his first collection of poetry at the age of sixteen. A high profile figure on Reykjavik’s cultural scene, in addition being an award-winning novelist, poet, playwright, and librettist Sjón was a founding member of the neo-surrealist performance art group Medusa.

Translated into twenty-nine languages, Sjón’s novels combine realism and surrealism, His best-known work internationally is the Nordic Council Literature Prize winning novel The Blue Fox.

Transporting readers to 1918, Sjón’s latest book is a mature work confirming his status as the most significant Icelandic author since Halldór Laxness. A moving and deeply affecting portrait of tumultuous times, Sjón’s complex novella rewards repeated reading. Underpinning a richly veined account of a nation confronting and being transformed by external threats is an absorbing chronicle of the nation’s largely undocumented gay culture in the early twentieth century.

Death is an ever-present presence over the course of three months that decimated Iceland’s population. Hopes are high when news breaks that World War One has ended. Officially neutral throughout the conflict’s duration, Iceland’s increased isolation precipitated a marked downturn in its citizens’ standards of living. The reopening of trade routes following the cessation of hostilities was greeted with optimism. Hopes about an upswing are soon dampened following an outbreak of Spanish Influenza.

Rapidly spreading throughout the country, the virus is thought to have wiped out 50 percent of Reykjavik’s population. Sjon’s lyrical prose recreates the horrors of the pandemic’s transmission with journalistic precision.

This chilling moment in Icelandic history is seen through the eyes of 16-year old Máni Steinn Karlsson. An anti-Peter Pan, instead of the “The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up” Sjón uses “The Boy Who Never Was” to tell a deeply-charged story filled with loss and transformation.

Drawing attention to the fictional nature of his lead character while ensuring the historical background is meticulously researched allows the author to draw the reader’s attention to tell a group of people that have until relatively recently been underrepresented in Icelandic literature and historical narratives.

An outsider, Máni Steinn Karlsson reflects the era and represents a challenge to its orthodoxy. Orphaned at an early age and living with his grandmother, he is obsessed about a local girl, Sóla G, and entranced by the power of silent cinema. Identifying with the lead character of classic serial Les Vampires he recognizes and embraces his status as someone who lives on society’s fringes.

A cinephile long before the term existed, he sees every film that arrives on Icelandic shores, frequently remoulding the plots within his mind as he blurs fiction and reality.

Máni is a sex-worker in an age when homosexuality was illegal and is despised by the very people who regularly pay for his services.

Dedicated to Sjón’s uncle who died of AIDs-related complications in 1993, Moonstone is a significant work from one of the most exciting writers of Nordic literary fiction. Dreamlike, unsettling, and moving. A truly unforgettable novella.

Moonstone is published by Sceptre