I did write the following review yesterday but before I finished we lost power because of the blizzard. So I did write this when I promised I would but couldn’t publish it because I couldn’t connect to the Internet at home.
The narration in Land of Love and Ruins by Oddný Eir (translated from the Icelandic by Philip Roughton) travels through time both forwards and backwards as well as through space (primarily through Iceland) both effortlessly and in broad strokes. Yet it isn’t lacking in detail by a long shot. Take for example a passage in which the main character and her boyfriend Birdy decide while during a trip in London to visit some book shops: “Today we visited bookshops. First went to say hello to a porcupine, sharpening its snout in doubts.” The paragraph continues without any mention again to the porcupine, as if that one seemingly innocuous detail was simply part of the bookshop experience.
This makes sense, as this autobiographical novel doesn’t so much have a plot as it threads together glimpses throughout the narrator’s life in dramatic arch, focusing mostly around the early years in her relationship with Birdy, an ornithologist. All of the sections of the book are written as diary entries written on holidays (which may even be from Eir’s own diary—we find out about two thirds into the book that the main character’s name is indeed Oddný). The first entry takes place on the Feast of St. Lucy, the patron saint of the blind and includes an observation that love is blind before the two lovers meet.
The book centers around Oddný’s relationship with Birdy but doesn’t focus on it. (For one long stretch of the story Birdy has gone to live in a cave by himself to find himself. While it’s mentioned from time to time, life goes on for everybody else.) Oddný also explores her relationship with her archeologist brother, Owlie as well as with her female ancestors and their history in Iceland. Oddný’s relationship with the land takes a major role in the book with her frequent traveling, both by herself and with others. She offers her thoughts on conservation of Iceland’s resources and how this ties in with national identity, and how this could be lost with economical development.
At one point Oddný accompanies Owlie, an archeologist, on a dig and they discover ruins of an ancient dwelling which may be Celtic in nature. All of Oddný’s thoughts on land and heritage tie together in this one site. Again, the thoughts on the ruins themselves are fleeting and mixed with all of her other observations as she goes throughout her daily life. But given the awe and excitement she expresses and the fact that the ruins touch on many of the major themes, it feels as the book’s centerpiece—even to the point that diagrams of the site appear at the beginning and end of the novel.
Land of Love and Ruins can be a challenging read at first, considering the lack of a discernible plot on the surface. Eir’s philosophical observations make the reader feel that there’s much more under the surface—there may be at times, but it also is a representation of how our thoughts and observations on the world are just that—fleeting, just like our connection with the land and the heritage that we tie to it.