Fiction – paperback; Picador; 200 pages; 2021. Translated from the Icelandic by Meg Matich.
Thora Hjörleifsdóttir is a poet from Iceland who has turned her hand to writing fiction.
Magma is her debut novel, originally published in Icelandic in 2019 as Kvika and translated into English by Meg Matich two years later. Oprah Daily named it one of the Best Translated Books of 2021, describing it as an “erotic thriller” in which “volcanic desire oozes beneath the thin rust of relationships”. It’s garnered plenty of critical acclaim from a wide variety of reviewers and outlets.
I picked it up by chance at my local independent bookstore (a big shoutout to New Edition in Fremantle where I seem to spend half my wages) because the blurb sounded interesting. I figured it would be a good read for Annabel’s Nordic FINDS, a month-long celebration of work from Finland, Iceland, Norway, Denmark and Sweden.
It’s a quick read… less than two hours, in fact, helped partly by a compelling storyline and a layout that adopts a lot of white space. Indeed, some chapters are just a single paragraph and every new chapter starts on a righthand page. Before you know it, you’re halfway through the book, totally engrossed and keen to see what will happen next.
And then — BINGO! — you’ve finished.
And, if you are anything like me, you will feel:
a bit gobsmacked
You might also feel a tiny bit hopeful that the narrator has found a path out of her predicament.
That predicament comes in the form of a man. Not a very nice man. A man who is manipulative, devious, narcissistic, untrustworthy and unkind.
He’s good-looking — and knows it.
Our narrator, Lilja, a 20-year-old university student, is in love with him.
She is impressed by his ability to quote the French philosopher Derrida, his commitment to vegetarianism — “We’ve banded together in our meat-free lifestyle” — and his DVD collection.
But right from the start, she’s less impressed by the knowledge he has two children (by two different women) with whom he has little contact, and a recent ex-girlfriend he can’t seem to ever let go.
Despite this, she’s on a mission to become more than a sexual partner: she wants to become his girlfriend.
I love him, but I’m not going to tell him, not yet anyway. I don’t believe he loves me back, but we’re getting there. And I don’t care. It’s enough when he touches me, wraps his arms around me, fucks me.
They hang out together, but he never truly commits to her. Even when she moves in with him, he continues his philandering and maintains his privacy to a ridiculous degree.
He lacks any kind of social skills — he rudely reads a novel at the dinner table when invited to meet her parents, for instance — and never introduces her to any of her friends, even when they are in her company, and makes constant snide remarks about how many men she has slept with.
His sexual proclivities, and what he expects Lilja to do in bed with him, are also questionable.
It’s hard to understand what Lilja sees in him, but she’s obsessed and seems prepared to subject herself to all kinds of humiliations in the name of so-called love. The book takes a very dark turn when Lila begins to self-harm.
Living in silence
The author claims she wrote Magma to highlight the kinds of abuse so many women endure in silence. “Shame and isolation thrive in that silence,” she writes in her preface. “If it isn’t broken, this story will continue to repeat itself”.
Her objective is honourable but reading this I couldn’t help but think the story was mildly gratuitous. It’s sexually explicit in places (you have been warned) and makes for uncomfortable reading (which is, perhaps the point).
The saving grace is the beautiful impressionistic prose. It’s stripped right back but remains elegant and eloquent. Every word counts. And that makes for a powerful — and, at times, shocking — impact.
In telling the story of a young woman whose all-consuming love affair with a manipulative man results in her eventual unravelling, Magma is as much about lust as it is about the lengths we are prepared to go to stay in a relationship.
I read this book as part of Annabel’s #NordicFINDS23, a month of celebrating literature from the five Nordic countries. You are welcome to join in however you wish, with books by Nordic authors or a Nordic setting. To find out more, visit AnnaBookBel.