Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Gudmundur Andri Thorsson, Iceland, Peirene Press, Publisher, Setting

‘And the Wind Sees All’ by Gudmundur Andri Thorsson (translated by Bjorg Arnadottir and Andrew Cauthery)

Fiction – paperback; Peirene Press; 176 pages; 2018. Translated from the Icelandic by Bjorg Arnadottir and Andrew Cauthery.

Gudmundur Andri Thorsson’s And the Wind Sees All is a beautiful tale that celebrates a small fishing community in northern Iceland.

Each chapter is devoted to a different resident in the village so it reads more like a short story collection than a novel. But there are common threads and recurring motifs so the stories feel connected. A woman wearing a white dress with blue polka dots, for instance, appears in every chapter as she rides her bicycle down the main street.

That woman is Kata and she’s the young woman who plays the clarinet in the local choir. She’s on her way to the village hall for an ambitious concert of Icelandic choral songs, but we don’t really find out her story until the end.

In the meantime, we meet a varied and interesting collection of characters, many nursing heartbreaks and heartaches, but all just getting on with their lives as best they can.

There’s the poet struggling to write the piece he will perform at the concert; there’s pipe-toting Árni, a blow-in who arrived just two years ago, that the locals are unsure about; there’s Svenni, a taciturn and reserved foreman in the refrigeration plant, who was molested as a child by a politician who visited the family home; and there’s Ólafur, a banker who was caught up in the collapse of the Icelandic financial system in 2008 when the branch he managed lent too much money to the local fish factory.

This is just a small selection of characters from a wide and varied cast. Each one is well drawn, reflective and flawed, their stories fleshed out via flashbacks or memories to build a detailed, engaging and all-too-human portrait. And because we often see each person from multiple viewpoints as the book progresses, we learn more than they, themselves, might be willing to share, including the nicknames they’ve been assigned, some of them secretly.

Each person has a story to tell and the stories accumulate to build up a picture of a village with a rich and complex history.

A village is not just the movement of the surf and a life of work, the clattering of a motorboat, or dogs that lie in the sunshine with their heads on their paws. It’s not only the smell of the sea, oil, guano, life and death, the fish and the funny house names. It’s also a chronicle that moves softly through the streets, preserving an elemental image of the village created piece by piece over the course of centuries. This is us, what we are like, the people of Valeyri, we here, we.

The landscape, or more specifically the weather, is also an additional character. The story is set in Midsummer so there are references to the bright light, the sounds of summer — lawnmowers, motorboats, children playing, birds singing — and the smell of the sea.

Reading And the Wind Sees All in one sitting is advantageous if you want to spot the connections and better understand who’s who and how the characters know one another. I read it on Christmas Day and enjoyed identifying the elements that are repeated across the book, but there are repetitions within chapters that lend the prose a particular rhythm and style.

This is a lovely, graceful  and occasionally bittersweet novel, full of quiet moments of joy, revelation and sadness, a story that invites a second reading to spot the connections you missed first time around.

10 thoughts on “‘And the Wind Sees All’ by Gudmundur Andri Thorsson (translated by Bjorg Arnadottir and Andrew Cauthery)”

  1. You know, I’d hate to live in a village, but I love reading about village life.
    Cranford is my all time favourite, but I also liked Scenes from Village Life, by Amos Oz, translated by Nicholas de Lange.

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    1. Not sure I could bring myself to read Amos Oz after my last bad experience reading him… William Trevor is very good on village life, as are quite a lot of Irish writers.

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      1. Hm, my typos were going wild in that response! It’s interesting how much attention this slim book generated. I read it for a book club, where we had literary translators participating. Again, will re-read it someday.

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  2. Lightly interconnected stories set in a particular community really appeal to me. I’ve just finished – and hugely enjoyed – Rupert Thomson’s Barcelona Dreaming. Barcelona’s no village, except that like most big cities, it sort of is, so I’ll see if I can get hold of this Icelandic collection.

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      1. You won’t find tourist Barcelona in its pages, but the beyond-the-centre communities, the villages of Barcelona, which I’m lucky enough to know since my daughter moved there 10 years ago. I’m aware that my ability to paint a really vivid picture of the places he centres on his stories in my head informs my pleasure in this book, but it’s one I still wholeheartedly recommend.

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  3. I have read a few books from Iceland in the last couple of years, and really liked them (a good proportion of their few hundred thousand people must be writers!).
    For Barcelona you might try, if you haven’t already, Nada by Carmen Laforet.

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