For Earth Day, Read This Beautiful Icelandic Book

When Bjork blurbs a book using fully 8 exclamation points (“A true pioneer!!!!!!!!”), that’s probably all the motivation you need to read it. But I’m going to add my two cents: this Earth Day, you should read Oddny Eir’s slim, inventive feminist-environmentalist hybrid novel/journal/essay collection, Land of Love and Ruins.

Translated by Philip Roughton and winner of the EU prize for literature, this cool-yet-confessional book is narrated in vignettes by an Icelandic woman who has an ornithologist boyfriend, an archaeologist brother whom she loves even more intensely than she loves the ornithologist boyfriend, and an aching desire both to write and to save the earth from destruction.

The sense I got most from the book was one of seeking: the narrator seeks private space all her own in which to be herself, seeks love, and most of all, seeks justice. Her environmentalism and feminism are connected: she writes eloquently of her desire for privacy, but also of her pain at the immense environmental and social problems caused by ownership and domination.

For example, she loves her boyfriend and wants to have children, but she notices that when he’s working on his own papers, she feels less capable of working on her writing: “Can’t we both concentrate fully on work at the same time?” she wonders. “Does one of us have to be on household duty, to maintain the balance? … up until now, I never managed to concentrate fully on my work while living with a man.” She realizes that she needs to be able to have privacy, space, autonomy inside her relationship with “Owlie,” the ornithologist.

But she recognizes that humans need to find a way to live on the earth without so much destruction—having your own space to live in does not mean having your own space to exploit and profit from. After an argument with an ex-lover about whether patriotism can ever be separated from nationalism—with the narrator arguing that one can love one’s “fosterland” without resorting to violence and oppression against foreigners—she thinks about coming up with a new relationship to the earth:

Until now, corporations haven’t been based on collective responsibility… But perhaps we can come up with a new way to connect with nature and justice. Come up with a new collective form, a new form of shared responsibility.

This is important, because the narrator is characterized by a deep love of the beauty and wildness that make up the landscape of her native Iceland. If loving her country is wrong, then a huge part of her core being is wrong; yet she doesn’t want to take part in nationalism and xenophobia. With her boyfriend, she concludes that “the distinguishing feature of mature love is an understanding of the entirety, of the overall impact of all actions.”

That is: to love her land, her “fosterland” which has nourished her and sheltered her, ethically, she must love it maturely. That requires an understanding that each action has an effect on the other people, on the land itself, and on the rest of the world.

I’m afraid I’m making this book sound like a mere polemic, or a dull essay on responsibility; it’s not. Though there isn’t much in the way of plot to speak of—a late venture into actual environmental activism leads to no more “action” as traditionally defined than any of the earlier parts of the book, and her relationships are mostly characterized by quietude, their conflicts confined almost entirely to the intellectual sphere—the narrator herself is a beguiling character, someone constantly in search of the truth about herself, her life, her loves. She writes with lucid, cool clarity of her own sometimes contradictory feelings and thoughts.

Most of all it is a pleasure to be led through an unfamiliar, beautiful world by such an unusually keen observer, and to spend a couple hundred pages with a brilliant mind as it wrestles with the question that should haunt us all, especially today: what will happen to our planet?


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