Disconcerting look at mental illness, loneliness

A FIST OR A HEART.
A FIST OR A HEART.

FICTION

A FIST OR A HEART

By Kristin Eiriksdottir, translated by Larissa Kyzer

Amazon Crossing/ Paperback/ 183 pages/ $22.42/Major bookstores/3 stars

The Nordic countries may have a reputation for noir films unfolding against a backdrop of hauntingly beautiful scenery, but a recently translated Icelandic novel looks at loneliness and mental illness so disconcertingly up close that its Reykjavik setting is unimportant.

In A Fist Or A Heart, award-winning writer Kristin Eiriksdottir takes the reader into the mind of Elin Jonsdottir, an ageing but talented prop-maker who crafts burnt bodies and severed rhino horns for crime shows.

Hers is a life of isolation. She declares, four pages in: "I don't have any friends. Not a single one."

Her closest family member, her grandmother, died 40 years ago.

This solitary life is not for lack of trying - Elin had friends once, but they left for other countries or they always seemed to want her time or attention.

"When in the end they left, they took something with them that I didn't want to give, but it was invisible and irrevocable," she says.

Her habits are disrupted when she meets Ellen Alfsdottir, a young playwright and illegitimate daughter of a famous playwright.

The two women are connected by a brief moment in history, but they have something else in common: They are loners barely holding onto their sanity.

The book weaves through Elin's life in the present, traumatic memories she is trying to forget and viewpoints from Ellen.

However, Elin's reliability as a narrator comes into question as she descends into dementia.

One wonders if some of the past events she recounts really happened or are a jumble of news events and an active imagination. Did her encounters with Ellen even take place?

While this makes the book occasionally hard to understand, one feels compelled to press on, if only for the rare opportunity to dwell in the mind of a troubled woman and attempt to make sense of it all.

Occasionally, some readers may even recognise themselves in Elin, such as when she reveals her insecurities, even as a middle-aged woman. "Maybe I offended him a few times," she wonders about a man she meets while backpacking, "but I always do that when I like a person a lot. Want to show them how clever I am, but then say something tactless."

Eiriksdottir, who won the Icelandic Literary Prize for the book in 2017, does not give readers easy answers about what causes loneliness. She does not give any answers at all, but questions: Is loneliness innate? Is it the inevitable result of a series of unfortunate events? How can it be fixed, if at all?

And yet, like the expansive and eerily tranquil settings of the films Elin makes props for, one gets a glimpse of tragedy, trauma and forsaken-ness - drawing one closer even as it leaves one a little ill at ease.

If you like this, read: Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman (2017, Penguin House, $17.12, Books Kinokuniya), about a young woman who struggles with social interactions and her own secrets. Unlike A Fist Or A Heart, however, Eleanor is more uplifting.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 22, 2019, with the headline 'Disconcerting look at mental illness, loneliness'. Print Edition | Subscribe