Secretaries to the Spirits, translated by Kristof Magnusson, has just been published by Random House/Bertelsmann. This autobiographical novel was nominated for the Nordic Council Literature Prize in 2014. Although the characters in the novel have different names than Auður and her family in real life, she has made no secret of the fact that the novel’s plot is based on her own life.
Secretaries to the Spirits tells the story of the young woman, whose life has gone wrong. An avalanche hits the little village where she has spent some of her teenage years, after which she moves there and marries a twenty-year older, alcoholic seaman. Her mother and grandfather (her maternal grandfather is a great writer who once won “the grand literature prize” in Sweden), agree to save Eyja from the life she has chosen and from herself. She will go to Sweden, together with one of her mother’s old friends, the adventurous “Ski Queen” from Westfjords, who is to run a summer camp for Icelandic children in Sweden. Eyja is to help with the children but above all will have time to write her first novel.
The divorce and the trip to Sweden are meant to be a new beginning, but also give rise to settling old scores, with Eyja’s own past and her parents. She grew up with liberated hippy parents, who share most of the pros and cons of their generation. She is loved, but has grown up with non-stop parties and alcohol abuse. When she, many years later, is being interviewed by a foreign journalist on her novels, she considers answering: “I write because I have always been surrounded by people who suffer from an insatiable thirst. They guzzle down alcohol like an infant does breast milk. And I yearn to understand why. But do not misunderstand me, I am deeply grateful to these people. They have given me everything, and without them I would not be me.” In many ways Eyja’s upbringing is very typical for Nordic youth in the 70s and 80s, and elements of it are easily recognisable for a whole generation.
What makes Secretaries to the Spirits an outstanding autofiction novel is first and foremost two things: the one is the author’s unique linguistic and stylistic certainty, her prose is tender and emotional, but has also a fine and delicate irony. The second, and crucial for the book, is the narrator’s enormous capacity for empathy. The book depicts a number of very beautiful, complex and honest portraits of people from the author’s life, in particular portraits of women; the three generations, Eyja, her mother and grandmother, are strong women, but also vulnerable. The overwhelming and reckless “Ski Queen” Rúna is also extremely well drawn, bordering on the absurd and grotesque but still a powerhouse of warmth and feelings.
Secretaries to the Spirits is a novel about growing up and becoming a writer, a showdown without bitterness, with empathy and deep understanding of the main themes.
Jón Yngvi Jóhannsson