Fiction – paperback; Telegram Books; 112 pages; 2008. Translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb.
In recent years it’s been hard to move around the blogosphere without stumbling upon a review or mention of Sjón’s The Blue Fox. It won the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize — the Nordic equivalent of the Booker Prize — in 2005 and was longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2009, but I suspect part of the reason it’s attracted so much attention lies in the author’s credentials — in 2001 he was nominated for an Oscar for his lyrics for the film Dancer in the Dark, is a long-time collaborator with songstress Bjork and is a well regarded playwright and poet in his native Iceland.
I was intrigued enough to add it to my wishlist and recently borrowed it from my local library.
19th century Iceland
The story, which is set in Iceland in January 1883, is divided into four parts.
In the first, a priest, Baldur Skuggason, is hunting the enigmatic — and beautiful — blue fox across a snowy landscape. In the second, a naturalist, Fredrik B Fredriksson, is building a coffin and preparing the funeral for Abba, a woman with Down’s Syndrome, whom he rescued from a shipwreck and employed as his assistant for many years. In the third, the priest is trapped in an avalanche, where he has a surreal encounter with the fox, and in the final instalment, a letter, written by Fredrik B, reveals the (unexpected) connections between all the characters.
Essentially, the story is a fairytale, but it also contains elements of the adventure story and the mystery-thriller.
A novella with perfect pacing
And while it is just 112 pages long, it’s not a story to race through but one to savour.
This is helped in part, not only by the beautiful, highly evocative writing, but the layout of the book in which the first 50 pages often only contain one paragraph or sentence per page — “The night was cold and of the longer variety” (page 17) and “The sun warms the man’s white body, and the snow, melting with a diffident creaking, passes for birdsong” (page 21). This invites you to slow down and to read each page carefully, almost as if you are reading stanzas in a very long poem — and it also helps create the delicious, spine-tingling feeling of being out on a hunt, where every movement is tracked and each second feels like a lifetime.
Sjón has crafted a rather exquisite, highly nuanced novella, one that is cleverly plotted and expertly draws together what seems like two divergent threads into one surprising conclusion.