Monday, 16 May 2016
"Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was" Sjon
This is a very short novel of 160 pages, organised into quite short chapters. The atmospheric front cover caught my eye and it seemed like something which would be a little different. I have not read any Icelandic literature before and the blurb claimed this was a "mesmerising and original" voice with an author who "did not waste a word." From a literary point of view, it sounded like a very interesting read.
The story is about Mani Steinn (Moonstone) who is 16 years old, living in Reykjavik in 1918; it tells of his fascination with films and the cinema, his survival of Spanish Flu and his love for Sola G. His is also engaged in homosexual activities which were strictly illegal at this time and if discovered, would result in a prison sentence or time in a mental asylum.
The writing is very good and there were some very effective passages. We are kept at a distance from Mani as he is only ever referred to as "the boy" and this distance is also felt by Mani himself who appears somewhat removed from his immediate surroundings. When Spanish Flu ravishes Reykjavik, the narrator says that "no matter how distressing the scenes, the boy remained impassive. Reykjavik has assumed a form that reflects his inner life." Mani is perhaps as much an observer of life as the reader. He amuses himself "by analysing the life around him with an acuity honed by watching some 500 films in which every glance, every movement, every expression and every pose is charged with meaning and clues to the subject's inner feelings and intentions, whether for good or evil.....All mankind's behaviour is an open book to him."
Spanish Flu dominates the novel. It is described in horrific detail; it's appearance, symptoms, development and then the effects on the population. It clearly has a devastating impact on everyone and kills a huge number of people - "an uncontrollable force unleashed".
There is also an interesting debate about the immorality of the cinema and how it "fosters perversion in its viewer." Dr Garibaldi, another important character in the book, links the rapid infection of Spanish Flu to the cinema as somewhere where many people gathered regularly in a confined space. It is then used to develop an argument to support the idea of the cinema being responsible for mental disorders. This also shows the attitudes to sexuality at the time as well.
This book is a snap shot of a specific period in time in a country's history seen from the perspective of someone treated as an outsider. The prose is controlled and carefully chosen, it's brevity effective in creating a melancholy atmosphere.
Thanks to NetGalley for the advanced copy of this book in return for an honest review.