The sense of an ending

The Journey Home

Olaf Olafsson <em>Faber and Faber, 296pp, £9.99</em>

ISBN 0571204740

Olaf Olafsson's acclaimed first novel, published in English as Absolution, tells the story of an extremely rich but morally bankrupt Icelander called Peter Peterson. Living in self-imposed exile in Manhattan, Peterson keeps a regular diary, in which he guiltily returns, again and again, to the "little crime" he committed in Nazi-occupied Denmark. Olafsson's second novel, The Journey Home, became the bestselling novel in Icelandic history. Like Absolution, it is tainted by the spectre of the Second World War.

The novel begins with Disa Jonsdottir preparing to return to her native Iceland in the early 1960s, after an absence of 20 years. It will be her final journey: she has recently been diagnosed with a terminal illness, which has provided the catalyst for the often delayed visit. Thus the "journey home" is not only a physical journey, but also a metaphoric journey into the past, so that the protagonist may move towards her final destination: death.

Disa and her long-time companion, Anthony, are partners in a small country-house hotel, Ditton Hall in Somerset. Disa is an independent but tortured soul, whose life has been marked by great tragedy. She is also a proud masterchef who takes her work extremely seriously; her cooking is inspired by flashes of intuition: "Sometimes I'm moved to cook snails in honey for the simple reason that I've seen bees buzzing in the sunshine." Not surprisingly, Ditton Hall often features in the food columns of major news-papers and magazines.

The narrative, as in Absolution, takes the form of a diary, which is written in the notebook that Disa receives from Anthony at the start of her trip. It unfolds in the random fashion of memory, through loose associations, recurring nightmares and omens. The pace initially seems jerky, but this is quickly dispelled by the sensuality of Olafsson's prose. As Disa's journey unfolds, the reader becomes caught up in the forces that have shaped her personality and private torment, which her journey home is an attempt to resolve.

Certain events underscore Disa's recurring nightmares: the death of her Jewish fiance in Buchenwald during an abortive attempt to rescue his parents from the Nazis; her short visit home at the beginning of the war; and her duties as a chef in an Icelandic family. Nothing, however, prepares the reader of this accomplished novel for the moment of resolution that offers this tortured woman a sense of fulfilment and the confidence to meet death.

This article first appeared in the 23 April 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Blessed are the pure in heart