Translated from the Icelandic by Lytton Smith
(Rochester, NY: Open Letter, 2012)
One day recently I was out hiking with my husband in the woods by our new house, and we came upon a stranger. At first he pointed in the direction of our house and asked us if we knew the people who had bought it. It seemed to me he already had to know the answer or else he wouldn’t be asking. But we live in a small town, and people are nosy but polite, so we introduced ourselves and tried to be friendly. He asked about our family, whether or not we had children, where we were originally from. And then he tried to sell my husband, Jeff, on the idea of joining his Rod and Gun club, an endeavor I found hilarious since Jeff has never fished or shot a gun, at least not in the sixteen years I’ve known him. He was the kind of man, though, that you just nod to, and say that sounds interesting, and to whom you don’t mention you’re actually a vegetarian. As we hiked away from our neighbor, Jeff and I laughed about the surreal conversation, the man’s strangeness, and agreed that despite the freezing weather, the walk had been worth it.
This kind of chance meeting happens more frequently than we’d expect, and usually I think nothing of it. Then again, usually I’m not in the middle of reading Kristin Ómarsdóttir’s new novel, Children in Reindeer Woods, where during an undisclosed war in a non-specific time and place, a sense of violence lurks so strongly that you come to expect that what is lovely and peaceful could be shattered by horror. As the novel opens, three “soldiers cross the green meadow” and approach “a farm with a two-story house that rises from a huge nest of hedges and tall trees.” As “four children, an older woman and a young man head out with their hands clasped behind their necks” the soldiers shoot them. All except the youngest, eleven-year-old Billie, who is “spared, seemingly without a thought.” After a moment she “steals under a bush” hiding from Rafael, who then kills the other soldiers. He seems to be allowing her to stay alive intentionally. While he swears he “would rather lose the war than kill Billie”, there is no promise, ever, that eventually Rafael will not turn his gun on her.
The book forces you to remain skeptical throughout, to approach the world with an eye towards the idyllic being a precursor to violence, instead of the calm after the storm. And that night, after meeting my neighbor in the woods, I lay in bed and I worried. I worried that the man was more sinister than wacky, and that maybe he wanted to know about us to harm us. Every creak I heard that night was him. My children, after all, were angelically sleeping in their beds.
I don’t mean to imply the book is a literary horror or literary thriller, for it functions too subtly to engage in tense, creepy moments or gore. There is an undeniable pulse though, an everywhere quality, which reminds you that this is always how war functions, especially for the civilians. People are sitting in their living rooms, reading a book by the fire, and a bomb strikes the house. Or getting married, or taking a bus ride. People are just living their routine lives and then everything is destroyed and horrible. The fact that the story is told from the third person, filtered by Billie, even during scenes for which she is not in the room, functions to enhance the awkward unbalance of war. There is a line of visitors—another soldier, a nun, a census taker—who disappear at night while Billie is sleeping. Often they leave something behind, whether it be a shoe or a guitar case and although in the morning Rafael insists to Billie that they simply have “departed,” no one except Rafael knows for sure. War is an environment where everything is suspect, which in a way is the opposite of childhood where you take things at face value and the inexplicable seems magical. Combining these two, leaves the reader desiring the hope of childhood, while knowing the realities of war.
The fact that Billie reminds me of my daughter—precocious, wise, observant — made me want to watch Billie closer, made me love her, perhaps faster than I would have, but it is really Ómarsdóttir’s language—translated both starkly and lyrically by Lytton Smith—which makes this book a beautiful experience that has nothing to do with whether or not Billie and my daughter would cut off a Barbie doll’s hair together. Smith conveys Ómarsdóttir’s distinctly European outlook without losing the universal quality of this fable-like story. Of Billie’s time hiding after the soldiers kill her family: “The girl licks the salty earth, decaying leaves, mossy stones, the clods of earth.” Billie’s parents are far away, she is in “sort of a temporary home for children”—a fact which allows Reindeer Woods to swirl far away from reality, with no school to attend, no parents or curious neighbors calling, no trips to the grocery store. And although as an adult I want her to run away, I see that it is her child’s perspective, her mystical, imagination-based thinking, that allows her to survive.
The disquiet brought on by this novel is so powerful and far-reaching because so much of Children takes place within the everyday; it is impossible, then, to really distinguish between the fear we feel in war and that which occurs from peacetime senseless violence. Paranoia and magical thinking suddenly strike me, then, as two sides of the same coin. With both we create worlds laden with forces we cannot see or touch or control, forces which can lift us up or do us in. It is safer physically to be a paranoid in war, and safer emotionally, in childhood—especially in a wartime childhood—to believe in magic. Billie believes that her father is a puppet with a “puppeteer on another planet [who] controls him.” It is no mistake that his name is Abraham, and that he, like the biblical Abraham, is trying to make peace with seemingly arbitrary and childish beings who cannot understand human ways, despite their ability to create them. He has been sent—so says Billie—to Earth by the puppeteers to collect the rules of humans into a Book of Laws for the puppeteers. Here, to try and understand the human condition, in order to create order and law in the midst of war, in the midst of our current world, especially laws in regards to morals, one must be from another planet. God is vacant from this world, and people (not always adults) are left trying to sort out the mess. The only prayer we hear is Billie’s mumbled “Dear God, let me be good.” Although she’s quite uncertain what that means.
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Jena Salon‘s review of Children in Reindeer Woods originally appeared in TLR’s Spring 2012 issue, Encyclopedia Britannica.