In this beautifully crafted novel, Icelandic writer Olaf Olafsson tells the moving story of a woman who, in the remaining months of her life, undertakes an extraordinary emotional journey.
For years, Disa has lived a quiet life, managing an English country-house hotel with her close companion, Anthony. Having learned she is terminally ill, Disa decides it is time to travel back to the village in Iceland where she was born. With enormous sensitivity, Olafsson carries the reader with Disa on her quietly heroic journey. As she goes north, events she has spent most of her life trying to forget are slowly revealed. Turned away by her mother, her young fiance murdered by the Nazis, Disa was left to find refuge as a cook in a wealthy household that contained within it the seeds of both sexual and political violence. The consequences have marked her forever; only now can she attempt to find a resolution.
A rich and moving portrait of a woman by an exceptionally gifted writer.
- New York Times Notable Books of the Year
The cool undercurrents of history shiver the surface of this serene fiction set in England and Iceland after WWII. Twenty years after the war, Icelandic migr Adisa ("Disa") Jonsdottir is a successful, Elizabeth Davidesque restaurateur, manager of Ditton Hall, an English stately home transformed into a hotel. She lives with Anthony, the local squire, in a common-law arrangement and has assembled a staff suited to her perfectionist, willful character. Into her impeccably choreographed life comes the sudden news that she is terminally ill; knowing she may have less than a year left to live, she sets out to visit Iceland one last time. On her travels, a series of flashbacks bring memories of her childhood in Iceland and her early culinary training in prewar London. Buried deepest in her heart is the fate of her Jewish lover, Jakob, who returns to Germany from London in 1938 to try to rescue his parents. Alone, Disa goes home to Iceland and its quasi-racist politics, where she signs on as a cook for the well-to-do Haraldssons, whose troubled adult son has recently returned from Germany under a cloud. Olafsson (Absolution) writes in a spare but moving English, though sometimes Disa describes her recipes with more richness than the characters in her lives. Perhaps too reminiscent of Kazuo Ishiguro's butler in Remains of the Day, Disa weaves her own spell in Olafsson's accomplished novel, saving the tale from melodrama with her calm self-possession. Agent, Gloria Loomis. (Nov.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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October 29, 2001
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Excerpt from The Journey Home by Olaf Olafsson
I'm getting ready to leave.
The fire is crackling with a familiar sound in the hearth and the aroma of last night's baked apples still lingers down here in the kitchen. The sky is awakening; I can just make out a pink glow in the east. It's as if my dog had sensed that I'm about to go. Instead of lying by the fire with eyes closed as she usually does early in the morning, she's trailing me around, rubbing herself against my legs. All is silent in the house; I'm the only one up, having slept badly as I've always done when I've been about to make a journey. But this time I am going to do it. Whatever happens, I am not going to let myself have a change of heart now.
I open the window to let in the morning breeze and take a deep breath. A bird perches on a branch outside the window, a blackbird, not unlike an Icelandic redwing, gazing at me with a slightly sad eye. A mist lies over the fields and the dew-laden grasses stir gently in the wind. It has been a hard winter but now spring has arrived and a pleasant sulfurous smell rises from the wood where the leaf mold has started to rot. The trees have turned green at last, their branches losing that gray look, and the breeze picks up the hesitant chuckling of the brook, carrying it over like a postman with good news in his bag.
When I awoke I saw two horses down by the brook. It was three o'clock in the morning. Without turning on the light, I wrapped myself in a warm blanket and watched them through the window. They moved slowly, blue in the bright moonlight. Suddenly one of them seemed to take fright. It bolted away over the field, disappearing from sight behind Old Marshall's cottage, as if into thin air. I glanced back toward the brook but the other horse had vanished as well. This filled me with misgiving, though there was really no reason why it should, and I went downstairs to the kitchen to be comforted by the lingering aroma of last night's supper. I knew no better way of clearing my mind.
I blow on the embers in the hearth, then put on two good-sized, dry logs. The fire soon warms the room, reviving the scent of last night's supper like an unexpected memory. I wait for my nose to wake up too, wanting to recapture the aroma of the trout which I'd fried with a sprinkling of ground almonds, and the rich, tender wild mushrooms. And the apples which I love to bake after they have soaked in port for a long, quiet afternoon. My dog rubs against me, whining unconvincingly in the hope that I'll scratch her behind her ears, and laying her head in my lap when I sit down in front of the fire. It is beginning to grow light outside, a pale blue-gray gleam illuminating the mist in the fields.
I sit a bit longer, tying to summon the remembered aroma of the mushrooms and trout, but can't, no matter how hard I try. The apples won't let them through. "Strange," I whisper to myself, but I know better. Lately they seem to have been haunting my memory, the bowl of apples which greeted me when I arrived for the first time at the house in Fjolugata. And to think I believed I had actively begun to forget those days.
I grind coffee beans in my old mill and turn on the ring under the kettle before going up to get dressed. My dog follows me upstairs. "Tina," I say, "dear old lady. You'll keep an eye on everything while I'm gone, won't you?"
Anthony is up and about. I can hear him in the shared bathroom which divides our bedrooms. I feel he has aged a bit this winter but his expression is still as open and candid as ever. I thank providence that our paths have crossed. I don't know what would have happened otherwise.
My mood lightens at the sound of his humming as he rinses out his shaving brush in the sink. "De-de-de-de-de-dum-dum."
I was awakened before dawn as so often before by the ringing of a telephone. I sat bolt upright in bed, waiting to hear the sound again but I was aware of nothing but the echo of the dream in my head. I have become used to this annoyance but it never fails to upset me.
The suitcases are waiting down in the entrance hall; I pause on my way upstairs as they catch my eye. Handsome, leather cases, given to Anthony by his father before the war. They must have been in the family for decades, accompanying them to Africa and America. And India too, of course. Strongly made, yet soft to the touch.
I glance out my bedroom window. The sun has risen and its rays are stroking the mist from the fields, gently as a mother caressing her child's cheek. This time I will do it. This time I won't have a change of heart.