Summer Light, and Then Comes the Night

A community center, a co-op, a post office, and a depot—these are the sacred locations where evil ideas emerge in Icelandic novelist Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s imagining of a churchless coastal hamlet. Summer Light, and Then Comes the Night, his most recent work to be translated into English, is a loosely structured story set in rural Iceland. Its universe looks to be stuck in a far older era until wonderfully unexpected references to Die Hard and other pop culture references tug the reader back to the present day.

Ágústa, the village’s female post officer who examines every correspondence, serves as a link to the outside world. In this country, news travels faster than its subjects. The novel’s collective narrator is a (distinctly male) chorus of anonymous villagers who report on the village’s happenings in addition to Ágústa’s revelations. This chorus lends an appropriately homey, gossipy air to a tale about secrets.

The story is held together by desire—carnal, spiritual, and intellectual. In one example, a man’s passion for Latin and astronomy causes the village Knitting Company to collapse, while in another, the village police officer yearns to paint moorland birds. However, the majority of villagers feel desire in a more conventional manner.

To be sure, the narrator’s obsession with breasts is at times perplexing and serves no shrewd narrative purpose (as the voyeuristic “we” narration of the neighborhood boys in Jeffery Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides does, by exposing the dark underpinnings of suburban male fantasies) other than to convey the following: These village men really enjoy peeping decolletages. In one instance, a farmer called Krsten maintains a habit of running in a sheer blouse and mysteriously removes her bra halfway through the workout. (Ow!) One may interpret such instances as the result of wishful thinking on the part of an unreliable “we” narrator, but one believes they are pervasive throughout Stefánsson’s own fictive reality.

Stefánsson’s observational prose soars when he focuses on life’s small pleasures—a warm cup of tea, an overcast sky rippling over a field, lunchmeat, the quiet of fish—and his rich cottagey humor matches the environment. A strange occurrence at the depot adds to the universe’s mysteries, in which even Reykjavik is a faraway notion.

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