As symbolic as realistic

Katla eruption, 1918

Moonstone: the boy who never was
by Sjón (Sigurjón B Sigurðsson).
Mánasteinn: Drengurinn sem aldrei var til (2013)
translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb.
Sceptre 2016.

Reykjavik has, for the first time, assumed a form that reflects his inner life: a fact he would not confide to anyone.

Chapter XIX

This wonderful heartfelt novella leaves a lasting impression of a couple of months in the Icelandic capital as winter approached at the end of 1918. Through the life of Máni Steinn Karlsson — the boy who never was — we the readers experience a tumultuous epoch in history, affecting millions around the world but in such different ways; and Sjón’s writing, using short chapters and the historic present tense, has an immediacy and vividness that both appalls and attracts as it draws us in: it’s not for the squeamish.

Although written in 2013, Moonstone remains strangely relevant in 2022. My reading of it in the middle of a global pandemic also coincides with the eruption of the Hunga Tonga–Hunga Haʻapai volcano on the Pacific Ring of Fire, both of which events echo the arrival of influenza in Iceland, scant days after the explosive eruption of Katla, which forms the background of the novella.

This is stark writing capturing the bleakness of life a century ago, a monochrome diorama shot through with flashes of colour, especially red. But instead of creating distance, as can be the case with some historical fiction, the author includes a kind of epilogue which makes it clear that this story is of personal significance and importance: in an interview he emphasises that it contains “the untold stories of my gay friends and the shadowy existence they were forced to live until recently.”

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A surgeon’s knife

© C A Lovegrove

Good Bones
by Margaret Atwood.
Virago Press 2010 (1992)

— There was once a poor girl, as beautiful as she was good, who lived with her wicked stepmother in a house in the forest.

There Was Once

This collection of stories cunningly play with reader expectations: they tease, they feint, they nick and draw blood. With a surgeon’s knife Atwood dissects common myths and tropes, performs autopsies on literary classics, male fantasies, human foibles and traditional fairytales. Then, reassembling the parts, she fashions tales that forces us to look anew at what we thought was the case.

The two-dozen plus three pieces in this slim volume are in large part succinct, some barely more than a page or so; others, only slightly less succinct, remorsely hammer home their point while pulling your leg; a few have as a starting or end point a poetic form.

And though some may be seen as taking a feminist standpoint I would argue they are as much humanist, inviting us to take a step back to see not just differences but also similarities, encouraging comprehension more than opposition.

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Tempered by mercy

Inspector Chopra & the Million Dollar Motor Car
by Vaseem Khan.
Mulholland Books/Hodder.

This was Mumbai, after all, the city that not only never slept, but also kept all the neighbours awake by playing loud music all night.

The premise of this locked room mystery is that an expensive vintage racing car has been stolen from a prestige motor showroom in Mumbai and the manager, an Englishman called Jon Carter, calls in retired Inspector Ashwin Chopra to discover its whereabouts as a matter of urgency. Why urgent? Because bloody murders may result from its not being found.

Chopra’s task seems insurmountable, as he has just hours to solve the case with all leads arriving at dead ends. But it’s good fortune that he has a baby elephant in tow, an unexpected gift from a relative, and, with the help of this pachyderm (called, aptly, Ganesha) and the familiar flashes of insight that fictional detectives customarily get, Chopra inches towards the solution.

So, justice will be done, as suits the inspector’s virtuous instincts. But will it be justice tempered by mercy or will a metaphorical pound of flesh be the price to pay for the commission of the crime?

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