A Fist or a Heart
Translated by Larissa Kyzer
Award-winning Icelandic author KristÍn EirÍkssdòttir debuts her English-language novel, “A Fist or A Heart,” about a complex relationship between two women, linked in a bizarre way to a famous writer.
ElÍn Jònsdòttir is in her 70s, lives alone in a house she remodeled in Reykjavik, Iceland. Her career is making props for theatre plays, most of which are grotesque since they are primarily for crime scenes. She is good at her job, so it’s no surprise when the director for a new play, written by nineteen-year-old Ellen Álfsdòttir, the illegitimate daughter of a dead distinguished playwright and author, Álfur Finnsson, is asked to join in the production of the play. ElÍn had worked on previous Finnsson productions and oddly, is the person who found him dead, on a street midway between the houses of his lover who was Ellen’s mother, and his wife.
Although the two women, ElÍn and Ellen, never have a meaningful encounter, their lives are tied together in an idiosyncratic way. ElÍn is obsessed with Ellen’s life and stalks her. Meanwhile Ellen considers maybe getting to know ElÍn, but each bypass the opportunity, while the reader is given privy to their own lonely existence.
Memories of their past lives emerge; both have experiences that are extremely discomforting, yet there is a strong urge to continue reading. In one instance ElÍn travels to Bangkok where she become acquainted with a necrophiliac, a person who has sex with a corpse. Ellen is unable to concentrate on her play because her mother is having a mental breakdown: She has unraveled one of Finnsson’s sweater and wrapped the yarn around the gravestone.
. . . a page-turner, and may need rereading . . .
And, as if the book is a replica of Ellen’s play, there are a variety of strange props, such as the arrival of three boxes — one includes a glass miniature horse that had been extracted from ElÍn’s body. How this occurred is what spices up the drama in this story. There are references to the living rocks of Romania, the Trovants. As the story evolves ElÍn suffers dementia while Ellen begins adrift, alone in the world.
The plot is not obvious, rather EirÍkssdòttir has written the personal journey of people who suffer trauma, seek affection but remain alone, and are insecure. ElÍn was content making making props, while Ellen, who is extremely insecure writes poetry and plays. This story is like walking on a tightrope. It’s exciting and nerve wracking, and it’s a page-turner, and may need rereading, like an opera we continue to see, to better grasp the deep metaphorical state of the characters and world they live in.