A blog by the staff of the Thomas Ford Memorial Library
I love it when a story can be many-layered and still work as a simple adventure tale. It’s not a balance you find often. Borges could do it, Nabokov too, and sometimes Phillip K. Dick. Now I can tentatively add Iceland’s Sjón to that list.
Sjón’s 2005 novel The Whispering Muse sees its first American publication this month, and it’s been getting a lot of buzz. I was pretty skeptical. Maybe it was Sjón’s mononym, or maybe the presence of a blurb from former bandmate (and mononymous cohort) Björk on the back cover. Whatever it was that put me on edge, though, I was wrong. The Whispering Muse turned out to be wonderful.
Sjón’s tale is ostensibly about a short sea journey in 1949. It’s narrated by Valdimar Haraldsson, a pedantic scholar obsessed with studying the role fish consumption has played in “the supremacy of the Nordic race.” He undertakes a journey with a commercial steamer, expecting to bond with a group of Nordic fish eaters of his own ilk, only to find the ship crawling with red meat lovers, bad mannered Slavs, and a Greek second mate named Caeneus who tells enthralling stories about his journey with Jason and the Argonauts.
As the narrative shifts back and forth from Haraldsson’s neurotic complaints to Caeneus’s mythological adventures, we’re not just treated to a whimsical fantasy/adventure novel, we also get some fancy literary and historical allusions, plus mysterious little subplots that leave all kinds of unanswered questions.
I think it’s nicely done. The Whispering Muse is short, well-paced, funny at times but dark and violent at others, and it’s full of interesting characters. It might be a little too all over the place for those who like tightly plotted novels that stick to a theme and explore it in-depth. But if you want something imaginative, and don’t mind that it leaves a lot unsaid, pick it up.
Review by Matthew