Mattias is 29 years old and at a loose end. He was happy in his obscurity, beautifying the world quietly in his job as gardener and living with the love of his life, Helle, when suddenly everything changes. His job and Helle both disappear and even his attempts at obscurity let him down. Thrust into a disassociation, Mattias finds himself hurt and confused on the remote Faroe Islands between Iceland and Norway, where he only partly understands the language, and has to rebuild his shattered sense of self. Johan Harstad’s first novel is peopled with quirky, funny and surprisingly believable characters.
Mattias himself is the narrator of the book, and his first person recount is written with both an immediacy, and a sense of perspective that might come from a wiser, older Mattias’ recount. Despite the novel being a translation from Norwegian, Mattias’ language is poetic and rich, conveying his depression in a matter of fact way that evokes understanding without drawing pity:
“I was going to miss them, and it was a strange feeling, realizing that the only people waiting for me back where I came from were my parents, and they’d wait for me whatever I did, forever tuned in to that station, the frequency of loss.” (166)
Mattias’ own emotional station is tuned into the frequency of loss as he struggles against his talents and desires. By plunging deeper into that frequency with his damaged Faroe Island roommates and new friends Ennen, Anna, Havstein, and Palli, he finds new talents, new emotions, and a new sense of meaning that emerges along with his own growth. It’s a testimony to Deborah Dawkins’ translation that the poetry of the original comes through so clearly, with each transition moving between a drought and rain that evokes the pathetic fallacy. This drought-breaking rain opens the book with brilliant intensity: “The person you love is 72.8 percent water and there’s been no rain for weeks.” The rain then falls on Mattias as he finds himself alone and confused at a bus station on the Faroes Islands:
“Rain. The droplets that zoomed in on me from four thousand feet above and landed onto the back of my neck, into my hair, dripped down onto the asphalt and made small puddles that trickled slowly away from me.” (97)
The characters are all richly drawn and the book is filled with a funky sense of rhythm that keeps the narrative moving along quickly, between Ennen’s obsession with The Cardigans to snippets of music that range from David Bowie to REM. The cultural references are deftly woven into a story that moves quickly even in the midst of Mattias’ worst inertia, taking the reader on a journey between dreams and reality. By the end of the book, the change is so prevalent that the final narrator is completely different from the one that opens the book.
Buzz Aldrin himself and his trip through space is as evocative a backdrop to the story as Mattias’ hometown of Stavanger, Norway, and the moonlike Faroese Islands, where Mattias takes his own life-changing first steps. This is a lovely, delicately written novel whose power lies in the balance between Mattias’ awakening, and his acceptance that there are many kinds of glory, and many different ways to create meaning and leave footprints.