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Summer Light and Then Comes the Night

Humanity distilled

Truly original novels are few and far between. All the more reason to hail the wonderfully quirky Summer Light and Then Comes the Night by Jon Kalman Stefansson. It’s the portrait of a remote Icelandic town set in the 1990s and if that fails to excite you, I promise that this unexpected, humorous, warm story is worth reading.  Stefansson describes dreams and aspirations, crushed or fulfilled; love and desire, unrequited or reciprocated. Life, basically. His tone in playful, conversational and above all, funny. A breath of literary fresh air.

‘We’ – as in all the inhabitants of the town – narrate this story in stream-of-consciousness, run-on sentences. It’s an unremarkable little place with 400 inhabitants, its only distinguishing feature being the absence of a church and churchyard.  A possible reason for the longevity of its inhabitants, the narrators speculate. It’s a place in transition– both reluctantly and impatiently – from a rural secluded farming outpost to a modern late 21st century town. The capital Reykjavik used to be far away; the new road has brought everything closer.

Desire simmers. There’s the gorgeous, unattainable Elisabeth and her black, body-hugging velvet dress. The explosive passion of Kristin and Kjartan, and the spectacular revenge of Kjartan’s wife.  In fact, there is a fair amount of sex going on in this town, or at least fantasies about it.

Then there is the ‘scrawny’, pale skinned Jonas (‘like a lightbulb in darkness’) who ‘inherits’ the job of policeman when his tall, imposing policeman father dies. Or the most successful businessman in town who decides to ditch his Range Rover and glamorous wife in exchange for Latin books and stargazing.

Meanwhile, life goes on. What is the point of it all wonder the narrators?

We have it quite easy, yet don’t feel well, because what are we supposed to do with all these days, with life itself, it’s hard to work out why we’re living.

Perhaps the point is that there is no ‘point’. That the point is simply to live life, like they do in this little outpost of the world, with all its joys and disappointments. This novel is about everything and nothing; it’s philosophical yet firmly grounded in reality. It’s beautifully narrated and an enjoyable read and I’m willing to forgive Stefansson for going on a bit. A little more focus on fewer characters would have made this book even better.

Thanks to Maclehose Press for sending us a pre-publication copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Summer Light and Then Comes the Night by Jon Kalman Stefansson, translated by Philip Roughton is published by Maclehose Press, 249 pages.

Some more books by Icelandic authors: Butterflies in November

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