HOTEL SILENCE by Audur Ava Olafsdottir, Book Review

Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir’s Hotel Silence (Winner of the Icelandic Literary Prize) features a perplexing protagonist and thought-provoking themes.

Audur Ava Olafsdottir - Hotel SilenceHotel Silence Synopsis:

Jónas Ebeneser is a handy DIY kind of man with a compulsion to fix things, but he can’t seem to fix his own life. On the cusp of turning fifty, divorced, adrift, he’s recently discovered he is not the biological father of his daughter, Gudrun Waterlily, and he has sunk into an existential crisis, losing all will to live. As he visits his senile mother in a nursing home, he secretly muses on how, when, and where to put himself out of his misery.

To prevent his only daughter from discovering his body, Jónas decides it’s best to die abroad. Armed with little more than his toolbox and a change of clothes, he flies to an unnamed country where the fumes of war still hover in the air. He books a room at the sparsely occupied Hotel Silence, in a small town riddled with landmines and the aftershocks of violence, and there he comes to understand the depths of other people’s scars while beginning to see his wounds in a new light.

A celebration of life’s infinite possibilities, of transformations and second chances, Hotel Silence is a rousing story of a man, a community, and a path toward regeneration from the depths of despair.

Translated from Icelandic by Brian FitzGibbon

(Grove Atlantic, February 2018)

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This is my first title from Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir. After enjoying Sjon’s The Blue Fox I was keen to explore more Icelandic fiction and descriptors like ‘charming’ and ‘tender’ have been liberally applied to this and her previous novels.

Firstly, I was struck by just how simple the Hotel Silence storyline was. Now plot simplicity is not necessarily a bad thing, if it means greater focus is applied to other story elements, such as character development. But I knew, given his stated intention to end things, it was going to take some first class character development for me to engage with Ólafsdóttir’s protagonist. From my perspective, he needed a hefty dose of perspective.*

While the author delivered on the latter in spades, for this reader Hotel Silence fell short on character development, particularly in its early stages. Written in prose that is often abstract, at times surreal (described as ‘almost Kafkaesque’ by Kirkus Reviews) the Jónas Ebeneser we are introduced to felt passive and ethereal, like a caricature of a man. This is clearly intentional given haunting remarks like ‘I am a watercolour, I wash off’ appear throughout the text. But more perplexing was the way he speaks of women as though they are an alien species — on one-hand as conquests, on the other his masters.

An ethereal protagonist

I agree with my mother when she says it’s easier to express suffering in numbers than in longing, but when I think of beauty I nevertheless think of 4,252 grams and 52 centimetres.

Aside from this lovely insight above, little sparked empathy in me for Jónas. But fortunately for both Jonas and reader, he soon finds himself at the Hotel Silence.

The survivors and ghosts that inhabit the unnamed war-torn setting of the Hotel Silence were things I could engage with on an emotional level. My reading pace quickened, I became invested. Ólafsdóttir gives a human face to the all too often forgotten living victims of war — their loss of trust, support networks, often a generation of men, the psychological scarring and impact on children, and the myriad practical hurdles they face in resurrecting their lives.

So, while I question the use of the descriptor ‘rousing’ in light of a protagonist with so little purchase, elements of the Hotel Silence do hold a particular charm and memorability.

* In a less judgemental frame, this story also serves as a reminder that we all respond to circumstance differently and there is no yard stick for loss and its impact on the psyche.

BOOK RATING: The Story 3 / 5 ; The Writing 3 / 5

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Genre: Literature, Drama, Translation

This review counts towards my participation in the 2018 New Release Challenge.

Related Reads:  Women In Translation –  Our Recommended Reads By Region  |  The Blue Fox by Sjon, Review – Icelandic author  | The Room by Jonas Karlsson  |  The Scream by Laurent Graff

About the Author, Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir

Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir is an Icelandic prize-winning novelist, playwright and a poet. She is the author of five novels, a collection of poetry and four plays that have been performed at the National Theatre in Iceland and at the Reykjavik City Theatre. She also writes the lyrics for the Icelandic performance pop band Milkywhale. Auður Ava’s novels have been translated into over 25 languages and among them are The Greenhouse and Butterflies in November. This novel, Hotel Silence, won the Icelandic Literary Prize 2016 and was chosen Best Icelandic Novel in 2016 by booksellers in Iceland. Her latest novel to be translated into English, Miss Iceland, will be released in June 2020. Auður Ava lives in Reykjavik.

* My receiving a copy from the publisher for review purposes did not impact the expression of my honest opinions in the review above.