By Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir
Black Cat. 214 pp. $16
Reviewed by Laurie Hertzel
Jonas Ebeneser has decided to end his life. He is nearly 50, divorced, and his ex-wife has told him that Gudrun Waterlily, their grown daughter, is not his. Other than his mother, who is rapidly declining into dementia, he is alone in a flat, colorless world. "The shortest route to the old folks' home is through the graveyard," he muses, and this is the kind of thing that he thinks a lot.
It's not that he has nothing to live for; his thoughtful neighbor Svanur looks out for him, and Jonas himself is pretty handy with a hammer and wrench. But, "Will the world miss me? No," he tells himself. "Will the world be any poorer without me? No."
He wants to spare Gudrun the task of finding his body, so Jonas packs up his toolbox (he has a vague idea of needing it in order to install a hook to hang from) and one change of clothes (there's no point in more) and heads off. He ends up in an unnamed country far away, a bleak, war-torn place that has seen violence, destruction, and death. No one will notice another dead man there, he thinks.
Ah, but there are people wherever you go, and as he checks into the broken-down Hotel Silence, he meets the brother and sister who run the place, the sister's young son, and two other guests: a movie star and a war profiteer. Almost against his will, he is drawn into these lives, using his tools to repair the hotel, room by room.
Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir's prose, eloquently translated from the Icelandic by Brian FitzGibbon, is just flat enough to give this quiet novel the feel of a fable. In short sentences and minimal dialogue, she tells the story of a man's rebirth. The book rises above the obvious metaphor (handyman can fix everything but himself), and the clearly signaled ending, moving naturally and powerfully from despair to hope.
This review originally appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.