📖 🇮🇸 #47: A propulsive debut from Iceland
Thora Hjörleifsdóttir on coercive relationships
Welcome to Bookmarked, a weekly newsletter following my journey as I read one book from every country. If you like the sound of my project, I’d love it if you shared Bookmarked with a friend.
Thora Hjörleifsdóttir’s English-language debut, Magma, follows twenty-year-old Lilja as she blindly slips into a coercive relationship with a her first serious boyfriend, a narcissistic grad student who takes her for granted and is both emotionally and sexually abusive towards her.
The first warning sign comes when Lilja invites her boyfriend to dinner with her family and he starts reading a book at the table. The next is that he continues to maintain relationships with his ex-girlfriend, dismissing how uncomfortable it makes Lilja feel.
He still loves his ex-girlfriend, and they’re still close friends. She’s elegant and clever. She was at the top of her class in classics in school, they both know Latin, and they’re both well-read; they toss Derrida quotes around like it’s nothing. The other day, he asked me to meet him at a coffeehouse, so it was more than a little strange that he was sitting with her when I arrived. I felt humiliated, and I wanted to leave, to turn around and walk straight out, to disappear, but they’d already spotted me and I had to sit with them.
Lilja is young and in a liminal stage of her life. Her relationship is at the very centre of her existence—almost every thought she has pertains to her boyfriend—and yet it’s painfully obvious that it’s incredibly toxic. Though aspects of her boyfriend’s personality are recognisable, for the most part he’s so awful that it’s hard to understand why she’d stay with him. But such is the power of a coercion and Lilja sticks with him, even as he challenges and violates her boundaries, peeing in her mouth and pressuring her into having anal sex. Even as she worries about the children he’s fathered with other women and learns that he’s still having regular sex with strangers he meets online.
Lilja is a likeable, if frustrating, first-person narrator. She’s sharp, blunt, vulnerable, and almost performatively ambivalent towards sex. Hjörleifsdóttir writes with the directness of a poet, in a series of short, titled chapters, which offer pithy snapshots of Lilja’s life. The chapter titled “Willpower I”, for example, simply reads: “He called, left a message, but I was a Teflon woman—everything slid off me.”
Things take a darker turn when we learn that Lilja lost her virginity to rape. A relatively long chapter explores the incident before the book snaps back to short chapters centred around Lilja’s boyfriend. Though I’m sure it wasn’t the author’s intention, the proximity of these chapters will undoubtedly have some readers picking up on the uncomfortable implication that the traumatic events of Lilja’s past are what has made her susceptible to her current relationship.
Magma certainly doesn’t make for easy reading: it’s essentially a narrative of a young woman unravelling as she sticks with an increasingly destructive relationship. Though parts of the novel felt a little crude, generally it deals well with toxic relationships and internalised abuser logic. It does a particularly nice job of exploring the contradiction of knowing you’re in a doomed relationship and still not wanting out. I’m glad I read this book.
Magma by Thora Hjörleifsdóttir, translated by Meg Matich (Grove Atlantic, 2021 / Forlagið, 2019)
More books by Icelandic authors:
Here’s a list of other books by Icelandic authors:
Karitas Untitled by Kristín Marja Baldursdóttir, tr. Philip Roughton
The Hitman's Guide to Housecleaning by Hallgrímur Helgason
The Lodger and Other Stories by Svava Jakobsdóttir, tr. Julian Meldon D'Arcy, Dennis Auburn Hill, and Alan Boucher
On Time and Water by Andri Snær Magnason, tr. Lytton Smith
The Creator by Guðrún Eva Mínervudóttir, tr. Sarah Bowen
Hotel Silence by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, tr. Brian FitzGibbon
Last Rituals by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, tr. Bernard Scudder
Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was by Sjón, tr. Victoria Cribb
Fish Have No Feet by Jón Kalman Stefánsson, tr. Philip Roughton
What have you read recently?
If you’ve read a brilliant book in translation or you’d like to pass on a recommendation, I’d love to hear about it! For this project, I’m focussing on contemporary fiction and short stories, with a preference for female authors—but I’m always happy to venture further afield for a good recommendation.
You can get in touch by replying to this email or leaving a comment. I’ll be featuring your recommendations in upcoming newsletters, and I’ll keep a growing list here.
Bookmarked is written by Tabatha Leggett. Thank you to Gréta M. Bergsdóttir from the Icelandic Literature Centre for her help with this week’s recommendations. If you know someone who would enjoy this newsletter, please forward it to them!