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from the October 2016 issue

“Land of Love and Ruins” by Oddný Eir

Reviewed by Gordon Slater

Oddný Eir’s third novel, the semiautobiographical, genre-bending Land of Love and Ruins––expertly translated from the Icelandic by Philip Roughton––opens with the narrator returning home to Reykjavik in the aftermath of a breakup and a midlife crisis, and amid the looming specter of the island’s various economic and environmental concerns. The thirty-something writer and environmental activist records her thoughts daily, and the novel takes the form of her journal. The purpose of her return home is to collect her grandmother’s memoirs, songs, and poetic verses, links to an Iceland the narrator feels is disappearing. Through her excavation of her grandmother’s past—as well as her romance with an ornithologist nicknamed Birdy, and her close bond with her younger brother, Owlie, an archeologist—the narrator gains both perspective and purpose––“I am able to untie the blindfold,” she declares––and come alive to the possibilities of both confrontation and change. Throughout, Eir explores a deep ecology of love, family, nation, history, and nature.

Is it possible to build a home for oneself while leaving room for others? Can this merge with our desire for a social structure aligned with nature? The narrator’s experience of language as a tool of connection, as a method of understanding and shaping the world in personal terms against established social, political, and economic forces would suggest so. To make a home in language––this idea of Heidegger’s––to live self-sufficiently through its expression, means actively wielding language to redefine the self and social structures. Seen through this lens, language occupies a religious space, offering salvation and unity not through belief but through the thoughtful practice of communication, in meaningful engagement, and by listening and sharing experiences. The narrator describes writing as taking on a physical quality in her world. While reading, she notes:

I’d underlined the following sentence, in pencil: Language is the house of Being.

It is important for Eir’s narrator to see language, her writing, as a tangible force. In her conception of language as a home, as a space of connection and safety, and as a tool to reassess her relation to the natural world, Eir writes toward the possibility of Iceland’s renewal. Deeply embedded in this matrix is Eir’s resistance to patriarchal, masculine forms of dominance. This traditional model––where a home is built against a nature perceived as destructive and threatening––is also socially impermeable, isolating individuals within their houses, within the state, so as to avoid perceived threats from outside. Eir’s narrator reacts:

I really want to find a kind of feminine solution within the whirlpool of our male-centered culture.

Eir is bold in acknowledging the dramatic scope of change necessary and many of her solutions involve a restructuring of society at its foundations. Comparing literature and democratic participation to plants, Eir sees not only the necessity of promoting voices at the edges of normative society, but argues for a new biodiversity of voices, perspectives, and topics. In her feminist reimagining, it is necessary to distinguish the meaningful, beautiful connection that people feel to their land, their country, their history, and a nationalism that is by nature hierarchical, dominative, and exclusionary:

I tried to save the life of nature from the claws of nationalism . . . So I came up with new alternatives, taking only ten years to find the right terms: móðurjarðarást or móðurjarðarumhyggja, that is, love or care for mother earth. I find them a bit beautiful—though maybe not very manageable. Maybe it’ll take another ten years to find better terms?

Eir argues that instead of linking our relationship to the land we live on to nationalism––which is an ultimately violent, exclusionary force––we need to build our sense of home in a language and ideology of connection, in nurturing and caring rhetoric. This shift requires a rearrangement of how society at large manages private and public space. Her rejection of a social order where value is extracted rather than added, where land is viewed only as resource to be consumed rather than one to be respected and sustained, comes through even in her relationship to love, its honesty and reciprocal dependence, which she sees as a vital and continually renewing process. Eir’s narrator asks us:

What do we call chieftains when there aren’t any more slaves?

The personal, direct, confessional tone of the book captures a mind at work, both mundane and intimate, and digs into a wide range of philosophical, literary, political, and environmental criticism. Central to the novel’s political exploration of humanity’s relationship to nature are portraits of personal connections between individuals. The experience of love, the connections that people share, is accompanied by the weight of the personal, emotional, and physical scars that are uncovered in the process. Eir appears continually aware of the reality of human connection, its power and its potential for destruction, and how trust can expose and exploit weakness. Her notion of continual renewal as a necessity, emerging from the image of the cyclical qualities of the sea, defines her narrator’s vision of a symbiotic love connection. The safety of a private space linked to, rather than asserted upon, nature allows room for self-creation and fruitful connection. In seeking to create this home, Eir’s narrator confronts the necessity of larger social change.

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