By Audur Ava Ólafsdóttir, translated from the Icelandic by Brian FitzGibbon. (Black Cat, 214 pages, $16.)
Jónas Ebeneser has decided to end his life. He is nearly 50, divorced, and his ex-wife has told him that Gudrún Waterlily, their grown daughter, is not his. Other than his mother, who is rapidly declining into dementia, he is alone in a flat, colorless world. “The shortest route to the old folks’ home is through the graveyard,” he muses, and this is the kind of thing that he thinks a lot. It’s not that he has nothing to live for; his thoughtful neighbor, Svanur, looks out for him, and Jónas himself is pretty handy with a hammer and wrench. But, “Will the world miss me? No,” he tells himself. “Will the world be any poorer without me? No.”
He wants to spare Gudrún the task of finding his body, so Jónas packs up his toolbox (he has a vague idea of needing it in order to install a hook to hang from) and one change of clothes (there’s no point in more) and heads off. He ends up in an unnamed country far away, a bleak, war-torn place that has seen violence, destruction and death. No one will notice another dead man there, he thinks.
Ah, but there are people wherever you go, and as he checks into the broken-down Hotel Silence he meets the brother and sister who run the place, the sister’s young son, and two other guests: a movie star, and a war profiteer. Almost against his will, he is drawn into these lives, using his tools to repair the hotel, room by room.
Ólafsdóttir’s prose, eloquently translated from the Icelandic by Brian FitzGibbon, is just flat enough to give this quiet novel the feel of a fable. In short sentences and minimal dialogue, she tells the story of a man’s rebirth. The book rises above the obvious metaphor (handyman can fix everything but himself) and the clearly signaled ending, moving naturally and powerfully from despair to hope.
The Extra Woman
By Joanna Scutts. (Liveright, 336 pages, $27.95.)
“The Extra Woman” isn’t a title that screams, “Read me, I’m so light and fun!” There is a severe quality to the term that serves as the title of Joanna Scutts’ thoughtful, well researched, and smart book about the historically difficult subject of single womandom.
During the Great Depression, Marjorie Hillis, an editor at Vogue magazine, wrote “Live Alone and Like It,” a book that touted the single life at a time when it was practically unheard of for a woman to not be married. Hillis’ philosophies of how to be happy and single were very intertwined with who she was.
In “The Extra Woman,” Scutts draws parallels to other similarly optimistic books at the time, when the economy was in the garbage and people were looking for a boost even if it did employ copious amounts of magical thinking. Another similar Depression-era bestseller was Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends & Influence People” — a title that could easily be imagined as a blog post today. Scutts doesn’t endorse Hillis’ philosophies directly — she merely lays them out, a time capsule for readers to think about on their own, especially considering the harsh reality of today’s economy.