A Fist or a Heart by Kristín Eiríksdóttir, translated from the Icelandic by Larissa Kyzer
Published by Amazon Crossing, 2019
My rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Elín Jónsdóttir has spent decades making props and prosthetics for the stage and screen. Now in her 70s, she is hired to work on the debut play of Ellen Álfsdóttir, a 19-year-old playwright tipped to be Iceland’s next literary sensation. But something about the eccentric young woman awakens feelings and memories in Elín that she had long since buried. The more her obsessive interactions with Ellen prompt journeys into the past, the more her grip on reality begins to slip.
This is predominantly a character study of two enigmatic women who mirror and contrast each other in fascinating ways (the similarity in their names and experiences can be no coincidence). There is certainly a plot to anchor the novel (as we delve into both women’s pasts and move towards the play’s opening in the present), but the narrative always feels like it’s playing second fiddle to the book’s thematic intent. This is not strictly a criticism, but it’s a stylistic decision that seems destined to divide readers. As Elín’s narration becomes more and more unreliable, and the book moves in an increasingly non-linear fashion, the plot seems to slip ever more out of focus. This does, however, allow the author to explore the fragmented nature of memory and self, particularly where facing up to historic trauma is concerned.
I thought the author had some really interesting things to say, albeit subtly, about the healing power of creative expression. Both women channel their personal pain into their job, with beautiful passages detailing the painstaking yet tender work that Elín puts into crafting her prosthetics, and the escapism this affords her. Having suffered bodily trauma in the past, it also seems deliberate that more often than not, she is hired to work on Nordic Noirs; tasked with creating photo-realistic body parts and defiled corpses of women.
The author also raises questions about the search for autonomy, and role reversals between parents and children. Ellen is the daughter of a much-celebrated writer, and she comes to wonder if her work stands on its own merits, or if it is merely tipped for success because of its association with her father. She also feels morally obligated to look after her mother, who is suffering from poor mental health, despite the obvious emotional toll this is taking on her.
The prose is very nice and the translation into English has been handled beautifully. Despite flirting with excellence on many occasions, and having so many wonderful ingredients to work with, however, I was held at too great a distance to ever fully engage with its vast potential. Kaleidoscopic yet heartfelt, I’m intrigued to see what else Kristín Eiríksdóttir will write, and hope more of her work is translated into English.
You can pick up a copy of A Fist or a Heart by clicking here.