Children in Reindeer Woods by Kristín Ómarsdóttir – A Review

Children in Reindeer Woods
Kristín Ómarsdóttir
Open Letter, 2012, pg 198

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.

Iceland Featured in Words Without Borders for October 2011

The new Words Without Borders came out last week featuring writers from Iceland, poetry from China and a review of Juan Pablo Villalobos’s “Down the Rabbit Hole”.

By Gyrðir Elíasson
Translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb
Strindberg had ended up after death here, in a branch of IKEA in Iceland. more>>>

The Sound Words Have
By Þórarinn Eldjárn
Translated from the Icelandic by Lytton Smith
Once there was a town where no two people spoke the same language. more>>>

By Sjón
Translated from the Icelandic by David McDuff
Marie was alone there and showed the painter how she and Pierre / wrestled with radium more>>>

By Sjón
Translated from the Icelandic by David McDuff
The earth (like the heart) leans back in its seat more>>>

the stone collector’s song
By Sjón
Translated from the Icelandic by David McDuff
Brimstone – pyrite – opal / and jasper – dear friends! more>>>

By Andri Snær Magnason
Translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb
He’ll eat anything except people and foxes. more>>>

Patriotic Poem
By Gerður Kristný
Translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb
The cold makes me / a lair from fear. more>>>

By Gerður Kristný
Translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb
I try to be / kind to the children / so they’ll tend my grave more>>>

The Chamber Music
By Bragi Olaffson
Translated from the Icelandic by Lytton Smith
I’ll possibly throw myself onto the pyre more>>>

By Kristín Ómarsdóttir
Translated from the Icelandic by Peter Constantine
You have all sucked at my breasts. more>>>

Three Women Poets
By Kristín Ómarsdóttir
Translated from the Icelandic by Peter Constantine
A man in a pirate sweater / comes in through the door more>>>

The Slayer of Souls
By Ólafur Gunnarsson
Translated from the Icelandic by Ólafur Gunnarsson
She very much enjoyed being made love to by her husband in a bed that had belonged to another woman. more>>>

Four Creaking Wheels
By Sindri Freysson
Translated from the Icelandic by Martin Regal
perhaps they’re kindling the ovens at the crematorium. more>>>