The Good Lover by Steinunn Sigurðardóttir (translated from the Icelandic by Philip Roughton)
Published by World Editions, 2016 (first published in 2009)
My rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
This offbeat, contemplative novel is a rumination on various kinds of unrequited love, and the pain of yearning for the unattainable. We follow Karl Ástuson, a successful businessman and serial womaniser living in New York. Consistently failing to maintain a relationship beyond a brief fling, he decides on a whim to return to his native Iceland in the hopes of reconnecting with his first girlfriend, Una – the only true love of his life.
It has to be said that the book is concerned with its themes more than its plot, with characters often speaking and acting in inexplicable ways. In this respect, they can sometimes feel like hypothetical case studies in a psychology textbook rather than believable human beings. If you can submit yourself to these oddities, however, there are undoubtedly some interesting ideas regarding love, relationships, and grief to be unpacked.
Each of the characters craves a kind of love that feels in some way out of reach: Karl longs for the mother who died when he was just eighteen, and the childhood sweetheart who epitomises simpler times; in her dying days, his mother, Ásta, knits a sweater for the imagined grandchild she will never have the chance to meet; Una finds herself trapped in a loveless marriage, dreaming of escape; Doreen falls for Karl, knowing his heart belongs to another; Doreen’s partner, Liina, dotes on the girlfriend she knows desires another. Through this tangled yarn, the author shows us how messy love can be, and ponders whether we are doomed to always want what we cannot have.
There are some lovely turns of phrase in the prose itself, and there’s a general tone of melancholy that hangs over the whole thing. As such, the translation into English has evidently been handled well. The book cruised along for the first three quarters, interesting but largely unaffecting. Then came an unexpected gut punch, which led to a conclusion that I thought really worked.
I’ve found myself thinking about this one quite a bit since I put it down, which is testament to how stimulating it is, despite its unassumingly quiet and unconventional approach.
If you’d like to read The Good Lover, you can pick up a copy from Book Depository by clicking here.