The missing woman who came from the cold

They are not twin sisters, nor are they in love. They are united, united by circumstances which should have made them enemies. In Iceland, in the 90s, Ragnheiður and Júlía have the same man for lover. They get pregnant, one a few days after the other. Ragnheiður meets Júlía to tell her the truth about the “Alpha male” who will become the father of their children. “I am not the man of one woman and I never will be”, Örlygur advances by way of explanation. It was take it or leave it. Better to leave. Ragnheiður and Júlía fire Örlygur and move in together, penniless but determined to live happily. Modeled by this curious gynaeceum, their children, Edda and Einar grow up like fraternal twins: “They are, so to speak, one and the same person.” Their merger will end badly.

The Missing Reader is a beautiful novel, singular, polymorphic, disturbing, and sometimes raw and funny. He plays with the chronology to create surprises; it takes the story, the noir novel, the mythological story like Romulus and Rémus. Of the two mothers, one, Júlía, is the wolf. She breastfeeds both infants and leads her world with authority. “She spends her life helping people, spreading good deeds in her wake, she always goes further in her obsessive benevolence.” History is placed under the sign of the double. Each character suffers a setback; life is not stingy with it. The author, an Icelandic journalist born in 1974, uses wonderfully, although sparingly, the geography of her country and the imagination that it carries. The cold and the night penetrate the reader. The action takes place in “The Reykjavík before tourism” before “Björk is preparing to install the nation on the world map”. But we also hear about fjords and reindeer. The country’s isolation from the rest of the world, the memory of the poverty that preceded its relative prosperity form the ramparts between which the plot unfolds.

Walls, in fact, have risen in the head of Edda, who since childhood has been a compulsive reader while her brother Einar is dyslexic and does not read anything. To breathe, because she feels “Locked up in a prison whose bars are the words”, Edda disappears overnight in the United States. Einar goes there to find her. North America, for an Icelandic, is another planet: “Planes are not designed for such tall men, apologizes the stewardess after crushing his foot with her cart.” Alternating with the Einar survey, the Missing Reader recounts the blows of fate that break the momentum of the characters. It’s an intelligent book that has several beautiful and serious phrases, like this thought from Júlía, when her daughter Edda was born: “She is proud, proud of her daughter’s determination and her thirst for life, she admires what she demands of her mother, of life, when she is barely a few days old.”

Virginie Bloch-Lainé

Sigriður Hagalín Björnsdóttir

The Missing Reader Translated from the Icelandic by Eric Boury. Gaïa, 352 pp., € 22.50 (ebook: € 16).


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