The ‘Home in Exile’ series from Peirene Press is a real hit. I had loved both Soviet Milk and Shadows on the Tundra as soon as they were released, but somehow missed And the Wind Sees All, the third in the series. I am glad that I read it now because this was a gorgeously written novella.
And The Wind Sees All is set in a small, Icelandic fishing village called Valeyri. We are transported into this region by the wind, which comes in off the sea…
I see the secrets. I see people cooking, peeing, pottering or skulking about. Some weep, some listen, some stare. I see people silent, or screaming into their pillows. I see people throwing out rubbish and useless memories, and I don’t look away. I never look away. I see all.
As Kata, a choir conductor wearing a polka dot dress, bicycles her way to the concert hall, she passes through the village lanes and is seen by almost all the residents as she flits past their homes.
This framework gives the book an impressionistic feel, as it is composed of short vignettes on the characters that make up the village. It is almost as the entire lives of the villagers are encapsulated in the single time horizon of two minutes (that it takes Kata as she cycles past).
As is the case in small communities, everyone pretty much knows everybody else, it is difficult for secrets to stay hidden for long. But the village somehow accepts who you are and moves on.
The first chapter focuses on Kata and we get a glimpse of her relationship with Andreas suffused with sadness and missed opportunities. Although Kata becomes merely a presence in the subsequent chapters, the sense of lost chances remains.
Love and loss
A sense of profound loss dominates the lives of many of the characters. There’s Arni Moneybags later nicknamed Arni Going Places, with a successful advertising career under his belt. He has an instinct for creating stellar campaigns, and captivating the minds of the audiences. But his relationship with his partner gradually deteriorates. While Arni is glued to his computer, Agusta increasingly withdraws into herself until one day she disappears.
We are also introduced to husband and wife Gudjon and Sveinsina, who are in the same room physically, but miles apart in thoughts. Sveinsina, particularly, reminisces about her first husband Biggi, a guitarist, and how she lost him so young when their son Teddi was only five.
She is thinking about Biggi and the long winter when he dies, that winter in Reykjavik in that godforsaken block of flats, and Teddi was only five and followed his daddy out onto the balcony and watched him climb over the rail on the seventh floor and jump, watched his daddy briefly soar through the air – soar through his white and wonderful dimension – before hitting the pavement.
In another vignette, Gunnar finds the presence of his childhood sweetheart, who he meets after many, many years, almost too painful to bear. Josa, meanwhile, ruminates on her relationship and subsequent marriage with Kalli before he abandons her for another woman Sigga. And yet, they all manage to co-exist in that small community.
Cast of varied characters
More people and sketches of their lives abound. A lot of the characters are in some way related. After her husband Kalli leaves her, Josa is aware that there is life outside but prefers an existence of solitude indoors. Her one contact is her son Gummi, who occasionally visits her to cook a sumptuous meal, and during one of these visits admits to being in relationship with a woman during the height of the Balkan War only to lose contact with her later.
Svenni is an industrious foreman in the factory machine room, polite and respected. And yet he has those days when he calls in sick and holes himself up in the house with bottles of drink.
Sigga is married to Kalli after he left Josa and although she is welcomed in the village wonders whether she really fits in.
There is one particular piece called the Aroma of Ashes, which focuses on two well-to-do couples who are also best friends. Their lives are filled with expensive holidays and family get-togethers. We learn that while one of one of the couples has a stable marriage, the other pair has a strained relationship.
The sanctity of village life
Is life better in a bigger city such as the capital Reykjavik? Svenni’s parents certainly didn’t think so. Settled in Reykjavik, they send their then 11-year old son to the countryside to appreciate the virtues of hard work and toughen up in the process.
His parents thought that it would be much better for a boy to spend the summer months in the countryside than on the streets of Reykjavik, which would just mean hanging about like a slob and losing his appetite. He would become a pale, apathetic couch potato. In the country, he would find out what real life was all about.
For Teddi, possibly haunted by his father’s suicide when Teddi was five, the village and his vibrant family are beacons he hangs on to remain sane.
As you make for the harbor, there is this peace inside you. The beacon is there, and all you need to do is to aim for the beacon, if you stick to that you’re safe, whereas if you forget about it you are lost, you end up in the shallows, fall, sink into the deep.
And the Wind Sees All ultimately shows us that human lives are complex, whether you stay in a bucolic fishing village or in a fast paced larger city. Indeed, people staying in small communities also have their share of disappointments, relationship issues, happiness and success. This is beautifully expressed in each of the vignettes, which cumulatively leaves a much larger impression on the reader of how the characters have intricate inner lives.
A gorgeous gem
And the Wind Sees All then is an exquisite novella where the language is lush and lyrical. In descriptions of both man and nature, the author’s writing is rich heightening the feeling of a calm exterior beneath which secrets and emotions simmer.
All this movement: the sea is eternal, it nourishes, heals, rinses, gives and takes, is made of currents that have been in motion for millions of years, slipping beneath each other in one continuous swirl, because the sea is, above all, movement.
Although not as hard hitting as either Soviet Milk or Shadows on the Tundra in the ‘Home in Exile’ series, slivers of sadness, nevertheless, seep through each sketch dedicated to a character or group of characters in the novel.
All in all, Peirene Press has clearly scored a hat-trick with this particular series.
13 thoughts on “And the Wind Sees All – Gudmundur Andri Thorsson (tr. Bjorg Arnadottir & Andrew Cauthery)”
Lovely post. I just haven’t read enough of these Peirenes and they’re always such wonderful reads.
Thank you Karen! Agree on the Peirenes. The novellas are always interesting and well worth reading. In fact, some of them have turned out to be real gems.
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A gorgeous gem, indeed. I loved this one, too. One of Peirene’s cheerier books!
So good to know you loved this too Susan! I agree on the cheerier part, the first two titles in this series particularly were also excellent but quite dark.
I loved the way the narrative roamed the village just like the wind. It is a more cheerful book than the others that year, though not without some sadness.
Agreed! The first chapter with the wind taking the reader to the village was rather brilliantly done!
I sort of slipped out of the habit of reading the Peirene novellas a few years ago as I was finding them too bleak and hard-hitting in spite of moments of beauty in the prose. This does sound somewhat different in tone, possibly more hopeful and humane. Lovely review.
Thank you Jacqui! I think you will like this one. The first two titles in the series were quite dark, but this one is gentler and it helps that the prose is also beautiful.
Great review, Radz! I found Soviet Milk somewhat bleak, it’s good to know that And the Wind Sees All has a different feel to it. You made me want to read this book! 🙂
Thank you Juliana! I agree Soviet Milk was bleak as was Shadows on the Tundra (I do like dark books though😂). And the Wind Sees All is certainly gentler with some gorgeous writing. I do think you will like this book better.
This sounds amazing and very Icelandic (but hooray, not a scandi noir as translated Icelandic books so often are).
I agree there has been an overdose of scandi noir in the last few years. This book, though, is completely different and beautifully written.
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