Maphead's Book Blog

Reply to a Letter from Helga by Bergsveinn Birgisson

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With all this international fiction I’ve been reviewing of late, some of you might be wondering if I’ve sworn off nonfiction. Not a chance. Knowing that the year is half over, I’ve been trying to put a serious dent in a couple of reading challenges. One of those, the European Reading Challenge, has got me scouring the international fiction shelf at my public library. That’s where I recently came across a copy of Bergsveinn Birgisson’s short novel Reply to a Letter from Helga. Originally published in Icelandic a few years ago, an English language version was released in the US back in January of 2013. Being it’s short, I made my way through it in relatively no time. If you asked me if I liked it, that might be a hard question for me to answer. I’d probably say at first, I didn’t enjoy reading Reply to a letter from Helga. But the more I read, the more I became acclimated to the author’s style and the novel’s strong Icelandic flavor. By the end, Birgisson’s novel didn’t win more over as much as it earned my respect. But most impressively, it did so on its own terms.

Reply to a letter from Helga is kind of odd being that it’s written in the form of an extended letter from Bjarni to his adulterous lover Helga. Composed in the twilight years of his life, his epistle is roughly equal parts love letter, meditation on the meaning of life and plea for forgiveness.

I liked how the author described the mental anguish and sense of frustration caused by unrequited love. In a similar vein, I thought the author did a pretty good job portraying how people struggle when trying to make the right choices in life, as well as how they deal with the consequences of those choices. From reading this novel, I got a good feeling for what life must have been like in rural Iceland during the middle part of the 20th century. (I would best describe it as being at the mercy of the cycles and whims of nature, coupled with a strong sense of isolation.) For a such a sort novel, I found it surprisingly sophisticated thanks to its numerous references to philosophy, Nordic mythology and Icelandic history and literature.

To bring it all full circle, I’m not sure I enjoyed Reply to a Letter from Helga. But I am sure that in the end, I respected it.

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