Cover Image: Miss Iceland

Miss Iceland

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Miss Iceland follows Hekla as she tries to find her way as a writer in Reykjavik, Iceland. She faces quite a bit of , as this is set in the 1960's where the work force was not so progressive. You couldn't help but root for Hekla; you wanted her to succeed so badly, especially since she was taking such a risk by moving away from her small town in order to follow her dream. I loved how Audur wrote about Iceland, as my family is from there. Her descriptions of the country are beautiful. I would 100% recommend this to folks, especially those that want to learn more about Iceland. And I would definitely be interested in reading more from Audur Ava Olafsdottir!
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When my husband and I toured Iceland in 2017, we were in a progressive country with a reputation for gender equality and for being one of the most LGBT-friendly countries in the world.  It had already had a female president and a prime minister who was the world’s first openly lesbian head of government.  This novel, however, takes the reader back to the early 1960s when Icelandic society was much more conservative.

Hekla is a young woman who aspires to be a writer.  She leaves home for Reykjavík, but she encounters obstacles to the fulfillment of her dreams.  The male-dominated community wants its women in beauty contests or in domestic roles.  

Writing is Hekla’s obsession.  When her friend Isey asks her whether she wants a boyfriend or to write books, Hekla answers, “In my dream world the most important things would be:  a sheet of paper, fountain pen and a male body.  When we’ve finished making love, he’s welcome to ask if he can refill the fountain pen with ink for me.”  Later, she tells Isey, “’Writing.  It’s my lifeline.’”  Whereas male writers gather in cafes to discuss writing, she devotes every free moment to actually writing.  She starts a relationship with Starkadur, one of these men, and for the longest time doesn’t share that she writes, knowing that he wouldn’t understand that a woman could have a passion for writing.  His Christmas gift  to her is a cookery book.  When she does eventually reveal her secret, he acknowledges her devotion:  “’If you’re not working, you’re writing.  If you’re not writing, you’re reading.  You’d drain your own veins if you ran out of ink.’”  She persists even when she is told, “’The world isn’t the way you want it to be . . . You’re a woman.  Come to terms with that.’”  

Hekla is published but used a male pseudonym.  When she sends a manuscript to a publisher, he comments, “’There’s certainly a daring and fearless element in the prose, to be honest I would have thought it had been written by a man . . .’”  He declines to publish and makes pointed reference to having heard that she declined to compete for the Miss Iceland title.

Men, on the other hand, “’are born poets.  By the time of their confirmation, they’ve taken on the inescapable role of being geniuses.  It doesn’t matter whether they write books or not.’”  There are some wonderful jabs at these men who think of themselves as poets. Starkadur who claims, “’there are so few female novelists in Iceland and they’re all bad,’” has a poem accepted for publication despite the fact that it has a “line that starts with ‘assuage the wound’ and ends with ‘crepuscular gasping of mantled hopes’.”  He quits his job at a library because he wants an “environment for inspiration”! Hekla’s father writes that “It’s actually quite amazing how so many poets lack physical stamina.  If they’re not blind like Homer, Milton and Borges, they’re lame and can’t do any sort of labour.”

Hekla’s only real friends in the city are also trapped by societal expectations.  Isey dreams of being a writer too but finds herself as a housewife married to a barely literate man who is “good at sleeping through the children crying at night”; she resorts to writing in a diary but the busy life of housewife and mother leaves her with few options; she has an opportunity to read only if “the fishmonger packs the haddock in a poem or a serialized story.”  Eventually she writes to Hekla that she has “packed away my wings.”  Isey serves to show what Hekla’s life could be like if she gives up pursuing her goal.  

Jon John is a gay man who wants to be a fashion designer but has to take jobs on ships where he is routinely humiliated and brutalized.  He compares the treatment he receives to the oppression of blacks in the United States at the time.  Jon John mentions that “’The Icelandic government negotiated a deal to make sure there would be no blacks at the [Keflavík Air] base.’”  Iceland also wants no homosexuals.  Jon John’s  is a sad story:  “Men only want to sleep with me when they’re drunk, they don’t want to talk afterwards and be friends.  While they’re pulling on their trousers, they make you swear three times that you won’t tell anyone.  They take you to the outskirts of Heidmörk and you’re lucky if they drive you back into town.’”  Society sees him as a freak:  “’They consider us the same as paedophiles.  Mothers call in their children when a queer approaches.  Queers’ homes are broken into and completely trashed.  They’re spat on.  If they have phones, they’re called in the middle of the night with death threats. . . . It’s so difficult not to be scared. . . . I wish I weren’t the way I am, but I can’t change that.’” 

For anyone who has visited Reykjavík, reading this novel will undoubtedly bring back memories.  I loved reading the street names in the city, streets like Laugavegur and Bankastræti down which we strolled.  I was reminded of the Mál og Menning bookstore in which I browsed.  Visitors to the city cannot escape noticing Hallgrímskirkja, and Hekla makes reference to its being built.  Mention is made to historic events like the assassination of JFK, the awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to MLK, and the Beatles’ concert in Copenhagen; these will resonate with older readers.  

The style of the book can best be described as sparse and restrained.  It consists of short passages which resemble vignettes.  These sometimes give an impression of disjointedness.  Hekla is the narrator, but the first-person narration does not include any of her thoughts.  Her voice is unemotional and often feels impersonal so it is difficult for the reader to connect with her.  

The ending bothered me.  It is very abrupt.  The entire last section entitled “The Body of the Earth” left me wondering about exactly what happened.  The flashback strikes me as strange, and the last letter left me questioning Hekla’s motives.  Did she really make that request?   

My only experience with Icelandic literature has been crime fiction from writers such as Arnaldur Indriðason, Ragnar Jónasson, and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, so it is great to read another genre.  Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir has apparently written other novels and the quality of Miss Iceland has me convinced that I should check them out as well.  

Note:  I received a digital galley from the publisher via NetGalley.
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I don't know why it took me so long to read this one, but what a great, unexpected book! I originally requested this title based on the cutesy cover, but when I finally got the chance to pick it up to read it, I was shocked by how much MORE I got from this book than what I was expecting. SO many topics covered and in such a great writing style, pick this one up for a story embracing the changes in the world.  

4.5 stars for me!
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I'm not sure what to say about this book. It's quite a sad story, about what it's like to be a woman, in the 1960s and in Iceland, but also in ways that are still relevant today. There is also some exploration of what it means to be a gay man at this time. 

I give it three stars not because I think it's not good enough for more, but because I wasn't enjoying myself as I read. I would agree with the reviewer who said the cover misrepresents the tone; I had expected something more cheerful. Also, I think this book might be a hard one for many non-Icelandic people to get into, as there are lots of unfamiliar names, of writers, of places. There's probably a layer of meaning the author has carefully crafted that I'm missing out on.

Regardless, I'm grateful for having been given the opportunity to read it.
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3.5 stars! This novel took me on the escape that I've been looking for during quarantine! This story is set in the 60's, and ties in with it's years current events, set in Reykjavík. The protaganist, Hekla, is a female writer overcoming societal norm and being underestimated for her beautiful looks. I felt like I learned so much in a new perspective and place and loved the diverse, strong characters in this story!
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I was immediately drawn to this book by the gorgeous cover, as much as by the fact that a female Icelandic author wrote a story that takes place in Iceland. I'm always beyond excited to reach for books which explore places I've never been and societies I'm not familiar with. In Miss Iceland, Audur Ava Olafsdottir does just that; she takes us on a trip to the 1960's Iceland without getting out of our houses 9or inventing a timne machine).

Miss Iceland is very much a feminst story of a writer whose talent and work is not appreciated. The main character, Hekla, was born in a remote place (on this remote Iceland) where people had literally the most small-town mindsets if you ever knew one. With her ambition to become a published author, she goes to the capital city Reykjavik where she faces the harsh relity that the world of wirters is heavily male-dominated. To this society, she is more of a Miss Iceland than the intelectual she really is.

In addition, Hekla's roommate is a queer man, making it another angle of the novel's exploration of Icelandic social issues in the 60's. It's also a tale of their close friendship, adding a heartwarming element to this otherwise sad story. I do this that the story is quite sad, given Hekla's story and ways in which men kept cutting her wings.

Overall, I found the novel engaging and intriguing throughout, but I wish there was more depth to the storyline itself. I hoped for a more surprising or heartfelt ending, which is really the biggest thing I would love to have been different.

*Thank you to the Publisher for the free copy of this book in exhcange for an honest review.
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This is a quirky little book set in 1960's Iceland. Like the tv show Mad Men, a lot of emphasis is placed on the way women and homosexuals were treated during a less enlightened time. What is unfortunate is while there has been some changes, things still aren't perfect.
Our three main characters are Hekla, a village girl moving to Reykjavik to pursue a writing career, and her two childhood friends who have already separately made their way to the big city. 
Isey is a housewife with one child and pregnant with her second. Jon John is her gay best friend who is ashamed of who he is, and trying to make a living on various fishing boats.
Hekla is the strongest of the three, confident, cold and humorless. Isey and Jon John are unhappy and searching for something that may be unattainable.
It's really a very sad book with a very ambiguous ending.
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Hekla leaves her small town in Iceland for Reykjavik in the 1960s, looking to establish herself as a writer; both she and her friends confront the restrictions and patriarchal expectations that the conservative society around them places on women and queer people. A pleasant, quick read.
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Thanks to NetGalley and Grove Atlantic for the e-copy of this book for review.

Miss Iceland is posed as a novel about outsiders in 1960’s Iceland: our main character, Hekla, moves to Reykjavik to make a name for herself and establish a career as a novelist in a male-dominated publishing industry, and her best friends are a gay man struggling to find a place for himself in the world, and a woman newly living as a stay-at-home mother and wife but quietly aspiring to fulfill other dreams.

It is worth noting that the name and cover of the US English edition of this book do a very poor job of conveying the vibe of this book. This is a sad, quick book about inequality and how these three characters are each longing for different, more just conditions.

This book was stark and cold, with lots of descriptions of the all-encompassing natural landscapes and strange nature. When I visited Iceland, I was struck by how the weather remained omnipresent. This book absolutely reflected that atmosphere. 

In comparison to the strong pull of the setting, I felt removed from the characters, who felt one-dimensional and stilted. The dialogue is oddly one-sided, with Hekla intentionally presented as quiet and aloof to the point where she barely speaks. Her best friend Jón John comes off as a vague idea of a gay man, who has almost no other personality traits, and frequently compares his struggles to those of Black people in America. As the (very slow, quiet) plot progresses, we are frustratingly left with no character growth and no explanations of anybody’s motivations.

I’m looking forward to picking up more Icelandic literature, particularly any nature writing, but wouldn’t recommend this particular book.

(TW: physical abuse, sexual harassment)
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I loved the quirky characters and atmosphere of this book. The writing was gorgeous, and it kept me enraptured throughout my entire read.
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A beautiful meditation on the costs of both living outside of society's expectations and within them. Hekla is a female writer in 1960's Iceland. Hailed for her looks and up against the patriarchal expectations of her time, she is determined to live life on her own terms. Weaving through the narrative are the stories of her two best friends, a gay man who is suffering the consequences of living in the margins and a childhood friend who is stuck in domesticity. Poignant and lovely, this novel delivers a reminder that happiness does not always follow on the path most traveled.  

Thank you, NetGalley for the review copy!
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This book is set in the 60s in Iceland and through the eyes of our main character, Hekla, we explore themes such as gender roles and queer culture. Hekla wants to become a professional writer but in this society, it is inconceivable for women to become poets. At some point in the story, Hekla becomes romantically involved with another aspiring poet. Despite the fact that they both have the same passion, she finds herself unable to tell him that she is a poet too, well aware that despite being a poet himself, he won’t understand her passion for writing since she’s a woman. The title of the book, Miss Iceland, refers to recurring scenes in the book, where several characters, both men and women, comment on Hekla’s beauty, urging her to enter the competition for Miss Iceland. This serves as a contrast between who she identifies as, an independent woman who wants to write, and who society wants her to be, a woman who is defined by little more than her beauty. The book also looks at the rampant homophobia prevalent in the Icelandic society of the 60s. Hekla’s best friend is a gay man and the book offers a painfully realistic of the hardships he faces in this society. Overall, this book was very poignant and incredibly realistic in its exploration of its various themes.
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This is the story of Hekla who is named after one of the many volcanoes in Iceland. She is a born writer, and except when she works for a living, she just writes and reads. She has two close friends in her life, both struggling through their own lives.
This book is narrated by Hekla in the beginning of the 1960s, as she keeps moving from one place to another, first from her hometown to Reykjavik, then living in different homes there until she hits the road again. Money is scarce, and she needs to work in any day job she could find, harassed by several men in the process.  We learn that she is in fact a published author, but she uses pseudonyms to hide the fact that she is a woman, as she thinks no one will publish a book written by a woman author.
Narrative is delivered with a bit distant and unemotional voice, with short and clear sentences reporting daily events as if written in a journal. Writing style is somewhat unusual but story is interesting, with small dialogues and short letters intervening.
I definitely want to read some other books from this author.
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This was a fascinating book that I wasn't sure I'd like because Iceland seemed so bleak. But I ended up loving it as the messages were so clear. It's the 1960's and Helka has just moved to see an old girlfriend as well as her gay best friend, Jon. But because Helka is beautiful, men just want to put her on a pedestal to gawk at and keep mentioning the Miss Iceland competition. Helka has no desire for this; she just wants to work, write, and be appreciated for who she is. What she hears everywhere is, "You're a woman. Come to terms with that." This means of course that she should be content in a man's world where she will always be considered a second-class citizen and where her friend Jon must hide in the shadows so no one will know he's gay. Fortunately, Helka has an inner strength and resolve as she refuses to give in to society and all of its outdated mores.
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"You're the glacier that sparkles, I'm just a molehill. You're dangerous, I'm innocuous."

"When a man lives with a volcano, he knows there's glowing magma underneath..."

"I don't think it's the destructive power that attracts me, Helka dear, but the creative force."


I've been to Iceland twice and boy does this novel capture the ambiance and tone of Iceland to a T!  Helka is a dreamer who doesn't quite fit into the dour, working class culture that surrounds her.  Her best friend Jon, is queer and longs to be a fashion designer. Her other closest friend Isey, is a houeswife longing to be anything but.

This story is about those who were born ahead of their time, early 60's Iceland was not very progressive and boy do these three suffer. There were many sections that were hard to read, the degradation the poet piles upon Hekla, the minimization of Isey by Lykdur, the humiliation heaped upon Jon. Hard to read but there is hope in how they push for progress in their own lives. This would have been a solid 4 stars for me except the end left me really wanting, I'm landing it at 3.5 stars from me. The language of the story was just beautiful at times, reminds me of Sally Rooney's writing, well worth a read.

Thank you to Netgalley and Grove Atlantic for a review copy in exchange for my honest feedback.
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Today, when you hear an Icelandic author mentioned, you might expect their writing to be in the crime fiction genre in the tradition of Yrsa Sigurdardottir or Ragnar Jonasson. Miss Iceland shows no sign of the moody, Nordic landscape, tumultuous weather or dead bodies. In fact, reading Icelandic literature where no-one gets murdered is an interesting change.

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This book was a perfect escape during these strange times. The writing is atmospheric and the landscape of Iceland and the characters’ home villages play an important role as the backdrop for Hekla’s story. It was a great bit of escapism when wanting to travel somewhere besides the grocery store.

Hekla wants to be a poet, novelist, a writer and so she leaves her hometown for Reykjavik. Two of her close childhood friends are already living there-a housewife and a queer male. She is aggressively recruited for a Miss Iceland pageant and rebuffs all pursuers time and again in favor of her true passion-writing. Men are constantly bothering here in the hotel where she works as a serving girl. 

Isey is what Hekla’s life if supposed to be...raising babies and taking care of the home. She clearly rejects this and the notion that women are meant to be “seen and not heard”. I noticed whenever she visited her friend, she would always refer to the baby as “the child” in the narration. A possible way of distancing herself further from motherhood?

The men in her life want her to be a pageant queen or homemaker....except for one...Jon John. Her friend from home who lives furtively as a gay man. She has a boyfriend poet who is threatened by her presumably superior writing and keeps pushing her to be domestic. He asks her if she wouldn’t like a home to put her own mark on with a dining table and tablecloth...Even though he knows she spend every evening at the typewriter.

At times I found it hard to see Hekla as clearly as the other characters despite her being the protagonist. Perhaps this is just due to her “cold” nature but it helped me see her through the eyes of those around her. It’s no coincidence she’s seen reading Virginia Woolf and Simone de Beauvoir as she’s trying to carve her own path in life.

I really enjoyed following her friendship with Jon John and how they both supported each other in a way that no one else would. It was a heartwarming friendship in a cold place.
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I really enjoyed this thoughtful novel about a young woman, Hekla, who moves to Reykjavik in her native Iceland, with aspirations to become a writer. The year is 1963 and sexism and homophobia are rife. Hekla attends the gatherings of poets and writers at a well-known café but soon becomes frustrated at the attitudes of men towards her. One keeps pushing her to become the eponymous Miss Iceland rather than taking her writing seriously. She works as a waitress during the day whilst trying to write in the evenings but it’s not easy. She meets a fellow poet some 10 years her senior and moves in with him but dares not admit that she writes as she knows he won’t be able to cope with her talent, not least because she manages to write a novel while all he can manage is a couple of poems. She has a good woman friend with whom she grew up but this friend is now trapped in marriage and motherhood. Hekla soon realizes that in early 1960s Iceland becoming a writer is not what beautiful young women are supposed to do and in a male-dominated society, where the 2 options are motherhood or beauty queen, she will continue to be thwarted in her ambitions. She knows she has to escape. It’s an intelligent and insightful exploration of Icelandic society and the position of women within it, and the reader can’t help but be drawn into Hekla’s frustrations. I found it a fascinating glimpse into another place and time, and Hekla’s journey compelling and engaging. A really interesting and absorbing read.
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Miss Iceland follows aspiring writer Hekla, a soft spoken but creative Icelandic woman living in the restrictive 1960s. She doesn't want to take part in Miss Iceland and be a plaything, but she doesn't want to be a mother. As she tries to find her place within society, along with her queer friend Jon John, nothing much happens. It is not a plot-based book, but the narration is so evocative and full of yearning. The story flows and I found myself fully captivated. Highly recommend.
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Miss Iceland | Audur Ava Ólafsdóttir, translated by Brian FitzGibbon
Don't let the 'chick-lit-esque' front cover and title fool you. This book is beautifully wistful.
Set in Iceland in 1960, we follow Hekla (named after a volcano) who's in her 20s. She's on a quest to be a published author. A female author? No chance. She faces adversity in her attempts. Many think she shouldn't even be trying. Others think that if she'd just apply to be Miss Iceland or wear her skirt a little shorter, she'd get along fine. Actually, as it happens, Hekla has been published, but under a male pseudonym.
It's not just Hekla's battle that we're privy too. Her best friend Jon John plays a huge role in this novel. We learn of his queerness and how that's frowned upon. He's at real odds with himself. He just can't be who he wants to be - if you're gay, you're also an assumed paedophile.
I really enjoyed this novel. It took me a while to get into the writing style but it was beautiful. You go on a real journey with Hekla and Jon John and it's really quite moving. It's almost written as a series of scenes. It's an interesting concept but one that really worked for me once I got used to it. It just had this lovely wistful, dreamlike feel to it. It's unlike anything I've ever read before.
Thank you so much to @netgalley for the ARC in exchange for this honest review.
⭐⭐⭐⭐ / 5
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