There’s a war. It doesn’t matter where or why, but soldiers are fighting it. One of them, a paratrooper, lands on a remote farm, killing all the women and children with a quick spray of his machine gun.
So begins the Icelandic author Kristín Ómarsdóttir’s Children in Reindeer Woods. It is a strange novel full of unnamed locations and events that feel familiar at every turn. After the killing that starts the novel the paratrooper, Rafael, makes himself at home and begins life of a farmer and dedicates himself to taking care of the only survivor of the attack, the Eleven-year-old Billie. Rafael is a brute, not so much in the sense of his willingness to use violence, but in his unrefined behavior. Certainly he kills when ever someone threatens his existence on the farm, but he is also an uneducated man filled with strange ideas. Billie, on the other hand, is not a worldly child, but one that seems to have a practicality about her, even if that practicality is wrapped in fables.
Rafael and Billie inhabit the farm together, each learning to understand the other. Rafael is aways tender with her, yet also warns her not to use the phone or go into the kitchen where she could get a knife. Despite their domestic tranquility, there’s a threat of violence. When tax collectors come to the farm Rafael wastes no time in killing them. Billie isn’t horrified, but doesn’t appreciate the killing. Her reaction is indicative of something that runs throughout the book–a kind of muted fear and recognition of reality. Is Billie in great danger? Is Rafael as caring as he seems? As the book progresses their lives entwine more and more: Billie relating the stories of her father the puppet; Rafael taking her with him on futile car trips and to destroy cars, gas stations, or anything that could let the world intrude on them.
Children in Reindeer Woods has the feeling of a fable within a fable. The narration is stripped down, but describes a child like state, as if what you are seeing is a reflection of Billie’s inner state. The narration can be see in the stories she tells about her parents. Her father is a puppet who looses his arm easily and is writing a work of jurisprudence and her mother is nurse who takes care of them. Something is aways amiss with them though. Billie is uncertain but describes what we’d recognize as alcoholism. It makes for beautiful language and Ómarsdóttir, as rendered by Lytton Smith, evokes a magical world that both child and adult can recognize, but is completely unreal:
Her navel protruded like a bullet. Her mother believed that the navel would retreat when Billie entered puberty, when the egg in the ovary wanted to be impregnated. Then the ovaries would haul the navel and the umbilical cord in so they could later cast the cord out from the womb with anew shoot hanging on it. But until then her navel would push out because it was still invisibly tied to its headquarters…
The idea of seeing the story through Billie’s eyes also can help understand Rafael’s strange perception of the world. For example, talking to Agnes Elisabet, a nun who happens on the farm and who sleeps with Rafael, they have the following exchange:
“Can nuns commit suicide?”
“Nuns can do everything. May I play it for you, my love?”
“Why did she commit suicide?”
“My love, why does the sun shine? Do you know the answer?”
“Because otherwise nothing would live.”
“It’s surely good to commit suicide when one has given up on getting attention.”
The conversation is naive, as if the solder had no inner life, had been raised only to kill. Rafael may only be a boy of 18 or 19 as many soldiers are, still as unformed as Billie. Between the two explanations, Ómarsdóttir sees the war, its unsaid location and unstated purpose, as little more than a pointless exercise. Removing the players from the battle leaves them as they truly are: children. Children in Reindeer Woods is a fable can be irritating for its occasional “childishness”, but the depth and beauty of the language and her ability to create characters that express futility is such an enchanting way, make it one of the more surprising reads I’ve come along for some time.