At one point in Icelandic author Jón Kalman Stefánsson's wistful and whimsical novel "Summer Light, and Then Comes the Night," a character named Matthías tries to explain why he has returned home to his seaside village in the western fjords, "such a tiny and ridiculously insignificant place," after six years traveling the world. "It's difficult to control your feelings," he says, "sometimes just impossible; I came back because nothing else was possible."
Matthías is alluding to intractable romantic love, but his sentiment — the futility of fighting passion, of fighting despair, of fighting against the dying of the lingering summer light — could apply to most everyone in the village.
It certainly applies to the Astronomer, onetime director of the Knitting Co., who starts dreaming in Latin and soon forsakes his old life, losing himself in the stars and gaining his moniker. And it applies to Hannes, the village police officer who, unable to escape the void left by his wife's death from cancer, commits suicide, orphaning their son, Jónas.
The consequences of these men's actions shape much of the novel, even though the chapters are more linked stories than steps in a linear plot, stories about love affairs both scandalous and sweet, about ghosts haunting the village warehouse, about lives left behind too soon. The narrator, a sort of Greek chorus representing the village's 400 residents, offers running exposition plus shorter interstitial commentaries on the issues confronting the villagers in the context of the wider world.
Stefánsson's characters and their desperate, striving lives are colorful and ridiculous, tragic and inspiring, but the sleepy unnamed village about two hours north of Rejkyavík unites them, for better or worse. It has a liquor store, open Tuesdays and Thursdays from 1 to 2:30 p.m., and a district museum, with items such as a 100-year-old tobacco pipe, but it doesn't have a church.
Anton, the village taxi driver, transports not only passengers but gifts — of both gratitude and contrition — for Helga. She lost her job when the Astronomer abandoned the Knitting Co., and took a position answering a phone, 40 hours a week, and "listening to the person who calls, putting in a word or two, perhaps a sentence, but keeping calm no matter what comes up."
Helga's job, "experimental or innovative, we're not quite certain," reveals the isolation of these villagers, some of whom, like the farmer Benedikt, are "so lonely that we find it impossible to describe in words." While Stefánsson's observations about heartache, loneliness and yearning can be incisive, his male characters' desires are too often reduced to a wearisome fixation on women's breasts. Generally, however, his writing is fertile, yielding extraordinary imagery such as "Tears are shaped like rowing boats, pain and heartache pull the oars."
There are many tears in these stories and in this village, but there is also hope, because even unfulfilled dreams offer guidance, "they evaporate and settle like dew in the sky, where they transform into the stars in the night."
Cory Oldweiler is a freelance writer and editor in Michigan.
Summer Light, and Then Comes the Night
By: Jón Kalman Stefánsson.
Publisher: HarperVia, 256 pages, $26.99.