A Superb Icelandic Novel: “The Greenhouse,” by Audur Ava Olafsdottir

Multitudinous readers and writers participate in Women in Translation Month every August. They read innumerable books in translation and write their hearts out on blogs and social media.

And here I am–late! I haven’t written them up yet, though on account of snobbery,  I pay more attention to WIT than other online reading events, because a woman editor once mentioned it at the TLS.  And that must mean it is fashionable.

While browsing at Amazon Crossing (Amazon’s literature in translation imprint), I recently discovered a lyrical, charming Icelandic novel, The Greenhouse, by Audur Ava Olafsdottir, translated by Brian Fitzgibbon1. Originally published in 2007, it won awards in Iceland, France, and Canada.

Audur Ava Olafsdottir

The narrator of this enchanting bildungsroman, Lobbi, has decided to change his life.  He leaves home to travel to a famous monastery rose garden in a remote village in an unnamed country. His mother, a gardener, has recently died, and though Lobbi is the sole heir of her greenhouse, he is unsure what he wants to do. Dad has some reservations about the monastery: doesn’t Lobbi want to go to the university instead?  Josef, Lobbi’s autistic twin, is Lobbi’s contented stay-at-home doppelganger, while Lobbi restlessly sets out alone to explore his own consciousness.

Family is at the center of Lobbi’s life. He has an illegitimate seven-month-old daughter, conceived in the greenhouse with Anna, whom he refers to as “the mother of my child.”  Everywhere he goes, Lobbi shows people his daughter’s picture.  But Lobbi is not involved with Anna, a no-nonsense geneticist finishing graduate school who is not interested in a relationship.

On the road trip, he has an attack of appendicitis and an emergency appendectomy.  During his recovery, he reads a gardening book and wonders about his job. Here is an elegant, charming example of Olafsdottir’s prose.

In the evening I dig my gardening book out of my backpack and quickly browse through the first chapter on lawns, the main concern of any gardener, then indoor plants, before I pause on the chapter on trimming trees. From there I move on to an interesting chapter about grafting, which has been difficult to find information on.

In fact, I don’t know what awaits me in the garden; there was nothing specific about the job itself in the letter. Although I’d rather devote myself entirely to the roses, I’d also be willing to trim bushes and cut the grass, as long as I get a chance to plant my rose cuttings in the soil. I did find it a bit odd, however, that the monastery I wrote to should ask me about my shoe size.

The garden proves enchanting, and Lobbi pays tribute to his mother by transplanting an eight-petal rose from her garden. In the evenings, he watches movies with a cinephile monk, who finds answers to life’s questions in his enormous video collection.

I assure you this thoughtful, lucid novel is not a romance, though the plot point I’m about to reveal may sound like Bridget Jones. When Anna asks him to take care of their daughter while she finishes her thesis, he believes  it is the right thing to do. But it is a lot to ask:   he can’t continue to live at the monastery, and must find an apartment and learn to cook.

Forget the plot:  it is lucid, gorgeous sentence after lucid, gorgeous sentence:  Lobbi is witty and humorous, and gardening and fatherhood balance him.  For instance,  the baby suddenly starts saying “deo”:  she has learned a few Latin words during Mass while Lobbi shows her the paintings in a church. She also constantly makes the Sign of the Cross.

Oddly, Lobbi’s voice reminds me of that of witty, intense Karl Ove Knausgaard in his magnificent magnum opus, My Struggle. This is a simpler novel, but both narrators are engaging young men, struggling to learn who they are.