6 Rated Books Book Reviews

Book Review: Heaven and Hell by Jón Kalman Stefánsson

Title: Heaven and Hell

Author: Jón Kalman Stefánsson (translated by Philip Roughton)

Genre: Literary Fiction, Historical

Publisher: Quercus Publishing
Publication date: September 2011 (first edition: 2010)
Paperback: 240 pages

In a remote part of Iceland, a boy and his friend Barður join a boat to fish for cod. A winter storm surprises them out at sea and Barður who has forgotten his waterproof as he was too absorbed in ‘Paradise Lost’, succumbs to the ferocious cold and dies. Appalled by the death and by the fishermen’s callous ability to set about gutting the fatal catch, the boy leaves the village, intending to return the book to its owner. The extreme hardship and danger of the journey is of little consequence to him – he has already resolved to join his friend in death. But once in the town he immerses himself in the stories and lives of its inhabitants, and decides that he cannot be with his friend just yet.

Set at the turn of the twentieth century, Heaven and Hell is a perfectly formed, vivid and timeless story, lyrical in style, and as intense a reading experience as the forces of the Icelandic landscape themselves. An outstandingly moving novel.

Stand alone or series: Stand alone

How did I get this book: Review copy from the publisher

Why did I read this book: One day, this book showed up at my door, unsolicited and unexpected. I looked at it, saw that it was from an Icelandic author and I was like “I never read an Icelandic author before!” so I decided I should.


That awkward moment when you are supposed to be writing your thoughts about a book then you realise you are not exactly sure how you feel about it.

The collective voices from the past come to tell us stories of people long gone and forgotten. In Iceland, a hundred years ago, fishermen prepare to go back to the sea in search for cod, their main source of sustenance and income. Their lives are difficult, bleak. They are poor, the weather is unfriendly, the dangerous sea is both friend and foe and the only certainty is the hardship that awaits them. Still, on they go and still, they dream and they hope.

A few hardened men including a nameless boy and his best friend Barður are on their boat in the middle of their shift when Barður realises he forgot his waterproof – and the waterproof is what lies between life and death. They try to keep him warm but keeping warm in the middle of the unforgiving, cold sea is impossible and thus Barður dies. He dies because he was so distracted by the poetry and beauty of Paradise Lost that he forgot to pick up his waterproof before leaving on the boat. He dies and yet, life moves on. And this is something that the boy cannot bear and his grief is so intense he leaves the sea and the fishing for good and joins the people who live in the main Village. Perhaps he will join Barður in death. Maybe he will carry on, regardless.

The first thing of note about Heaven and Hell is its narrative. The narrative voice is a collective “we” and are presumably, the voice of ghosts from the past (literally) telling the story of their settlement. The narration comes in a stream of consciousness, flowing as the voices are remembering the past, without a lot of punctuation and without any dialogue breaks. It is not an easy book to read at first but one does get used to its rhythm after a while. An example:

It’s about time, the boy answers, a bit winded after the hike. Two hours since they set out. They finished their coffee and cakes in the German Bakery, made three stops and then plodded out of the Village, a two-hour trudge through deep snow. Their feet are wet, of course they are wet, we were always wet those years, death will dry them, the old folk said when someone complained sometimes the old folk know less than nothing. The boy adjusts his bag, heavy from what we cannot do without, Barður adjusts nothing, he just stands and watches, whistles a bit of a blurred melody, appears not to be tried at all, damnit, says the boy, I’m panting like an old dog but it’s as if you haven’t taken a single step today. Barður looks at him with those brown, austral eyes of his and grins. Some of us have brown eyes, fishermen come here from distant places and have done so for hundreds of years because the sea is a treasure chest. They come from France, Spain, many of them with brown eyes, and some leave the colour of their eyes behind with a woman, sail away, return home or drown.

The interesting thing about the narrative is how it is both uncertain and self-assured. It is uncertain because as ghosts from the past, the narrators don’t seem to remember everything, they can’t even name the main character, the main point of view they have chosen to follow. They most definitely do not understand how can they be in that state of being between dead and alive – still conscious but without moving on. At the same time, they are completely sure of the thoughts and feelings of everybody they mention – because they are everybody. They also seem to have garnered that sort of commanding knowledge about life and sometimes present to the reader dogmatic thoughts about life, the universe and everything. Things like:

he who has no dream is in danger

light that can illuminate a good line of poetry has surely achieved its purpose

On the one hand I thought that the mixture of uncertainty and certainty that the narrators seem to have – they are both unreliable and reliable – does fit the fact that they are ghosts. It is therefore, easy to accept that the dead would both have memory problems (being dead for so long) but also have that sort of certainty that being settled in their own ways provide. On the other hand, although some of dogmatic lines are quite poetic and beautiful, I can’t seem to shake off the feeling that they are too arrogant in their heavy-handiness, and even, clichéd. The main themes of the novel are how one confronts one’s frail mortality and how one can find beauty even in bleakness and hardship and I feel that I am supposed to be awed by the fact that SURPRISE! there is beauty and friendship in the world even when life is so hard and bleak. I am supposed to be surprised by how people love to read and find comfort in it despite poverty? Well, sorry, I am not.

That being said, in terms of the story itself, the book is divided in two parts. The first half, the fishing trip, the one that follows the day Barður dies – the moments just before it, the moments just after it – are quite evocative and taut with nearly unbearable tension. In that first part, when following the lives of those men, when witnessing their struggles and hearing their dreams, it is easy to be engulfed and transported to that moment in time and to understand and even appreciate the aforementioned themes of the novel.

It is a shame then that the second part of the novel is so unfocused. When the boy moves to the village, the narrative becomes disjointed, the points of view are scattered all over the place and the bleakness is extrapolated to involve several different characters.

And yes, to be completely honest, part of me thinks Heaven and Hell is pretentious and over preoccupied with the bleakest aspects of life. Part of me has been examining my own mortality ever since finishing it.

Notable Quotes/ Parts:

Milton was blind like the sea captain, an English poet who lost his sight in old age. Composed his poems in darkness and his daughter wrote them down for him. We thus bless her hands, but hopefully they had a life apart from the poems, hopefully they were able to hold something warmer and softer than a slender dip pen. Some words can conceivably change the world, they can comfort us and dry our tears. Some words are bullets, others are notes of a violin. Some can melt the ice around one’s heart, and it is even possible to send words out like rescue teams when the days are difficult and we are perhaps neither living nor dear. However, words are not enough and we become lost and die out on the heaths of life if we have nothing to hold but a dip pen.Comes evening, and a cowl casts, over all. Lines written in darkness that never left his eyes, written down by a woman’s hand, translated into Icelandic by a priest who had excellent vision but was sometimes so poor that he didn’t have paper to write on and then was forced to use the sky over Horgardalur Valley for a page.

Rating: 6- Good, recommended with reservations.

Buy the Book:

Ebook available for kindle US,kindle UK, , google and kobo

No Comments

    Leave a Reply

    This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.