The Sorrow of Angels

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The Sorrow of Angels is Iceland’s second novel on the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize long list – not bad for a country with a population of 320,000. It’s the second book in a trilogy that began with Heaven and Hell in 2011 (both have been translated into English by Philip Roughton).

Unfortunately I have now read the second volume while being completely unacquainted with the first. While this is largely unimportant for the majority of the story, I did find the novel’s opening intense with characters given the stressed remoteness of the setting – characters, I assume, that would be known to readers of part one. Certainly the central character, an unnamed boy, unites both stories. On the other hand, Heaven and Hell, at least in part, describes a journey of extreme hardship and danger to return a book to its owner (if the summary I read is to be believed) while The Sorrow of Angels describes a journey of extreme hardship and danger to deliver the post, so perhaps this second volume would have seemed more repetitive than it did if I had already read the first.

The novel is written in a poetic style which suits its subject matter:

“The night is dark and very silent in the winter. We hear fishes sigh at the bottom of the sea, and those who traverse high heaths can listen to the music of the stars.”

This is a typical example: one striking image is followed by one bordering on cliché. The ‘we’ voice reminded me a little of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s A Scots Quair, but without the humour, and at times veering from mock-saga to self-help:

“Man dies if you take his bread from him, but he withers without dreams.”

The novel really gets going when Jens, the postman, and the boy, leave to deliver the mail across treacherous terrain in the middle of a winter storm. For the boy we assume this is journey of self-discovery (as presumably the whole trilogy is). When, at the beginning, he is asked, ‘Who’s there?’:

“I really don’t know, he replies with the sincerity that he hasn’t yet lost, and which makes him a fool or a sage: No-one special, I suppose.”

During the novel he struggles with his awakening sexuality, just as Jens struggles with his love for a woman who murdered her previous husband. Jens is dour and silent; the boy is talkative and curious. On their journey the danger of becoming lost or simply giving up in the snow storm and perishing is very real. Often they can hardly see ahead and more than once they become separated. Death is literally all around them – a typical Icelandic greeting seems to be to ask if the person you have met is dead or alive. At one point the boy believes he is guided back to Jens by the ghost of a woman, which then takes them both to the house where she has died.

Many people have loved this novel but, while I didn’t dislike it, I certainly wasn’t enthralled by it either. While there are moments of gripping drama on their journey, even the danger eventually became rather repetitive: Stefansson may not have a hundred different words for snow but he has certainly used many thousands describing it. It also perhaps suffered a little from being the middle volume of a trilogy, lacking a satisfying conclusion. The boy sliding down a hill at breakneck speed on the back of a coffin has, I’m sure, great symbolic value (and I would love to see it filmed, especially in 3D) but, ultimately, it didn’t take us very far. All will probably be much clearer by the end of volume three, but I feel I’m unlikely to be there.

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One Response to “The Sorrow of Angels”

  1. Man Booker International Prize Shortlist | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] of my omissions on our short-list!). Leaving Fish Have No Feet until last was no accident: I read The Sorrow Of Angels (Stefansson seems to have moved from pathos to bathos when choosing the cliché for his title) when […]

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