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Fríða Á. Sigurðardóttir: Medan nóttin lídur (Night Watch)

This is the only one of Fríða Á. Sigurðardóttir’s books to be translated into English which, judging by the quality of this one, is a pity. Nina is a successful career woman, having founded her own advertising agency, which she continues to run. Her mother, Þórdís (Thordis), is now dying in a hospital. Nina has a delicate relationship with her older sister, Martha, who often treats her younger sister with some disdain (Martha is Nina’s conscience.) It is Martha who tells Nina that it is her responsibility to watch over their mother at night, firstly because she, Martha, has too much to do (she is a wife, mother and trades unionist) and, secondly, because Nina had promised their mother to do this. Nina has no recollection of having made this promise but, as always, goes along with Martha. Nina, of course, has her agency to run though she can and does bring work to the hospital. She is divorced from Gudjon and they have a grown-up daughter, Sarah. Nina also has a current relationship with Andreas.

The story essentially involves Nina’s reminiscences while she is watching over her mother. Sigurðardóttir mixes in Nina’s thoughts about her own life, both past and current but above all, about her forebears, primarily the female ones, and the struggles they had with their difficult lives on a remote farm in Iceland. (Sigurðardóttir herself was brought up on a remote farm, which has since been abandoned and fallen into disrepair. She was the eleventh of twelve children.) The story switches from first to third person and through the generations and is told in a primarily poetical language. Some of the stories are told directly, while some are filtered through her mother, aunt and grandmother, as she listens to them, as a child, remembering what they said. (Nina, a child of her times who came here looking for something she doesn’t quite know what, has been enticed by old tales and colourful descriptions, from a world of black and white, where life is desperate, a void.) But how reliable are these stories? We all make stories out of our lives, says her aunt, while even Nina understands that a story is intrinsically untrue, must inevitably be so, while both her mother and sister feels that old tales…should be left to rest in peace; nobody’s business but Thordis didn’t understand what stories are made of, that a story leads its own life inasmuch as it consists mainly of remodelled reality, an effort to restrain life, to bring system to chaos.

The tales she does tell and hear show the hard way of life of her forebears. She starts with Sunneva, a young woman, who appears one day in the small village with Stefan, a much older widower. Sunneva, Nina’s great-great grandmother, adapts to the new village, even though some of the people resent her and wonder how Stefan managed to find such a pretty young woman. When some strangers come on a ship and she helps them, things go wrong when they get into a dispute with Jakob, Stefan’s adopted son. Subsequently, Jakob is badly hurt and Sunneva nurses him but when he dies, Stefan sends her away. She will only reappear when Stefan is dying. Subsequent stories of Sunneva’s daughter, Solveig, her son and daughter-in-law and then Nina’s mother and aunt, all told in Sigurðardóttir’s poetical style, while showing the difficult life they had, keep Nina occupied during her three night vigil, to Martha’s disgust. But she also examines her own life, including her various love affairs, her marriage (you never loved him, her friend Susy says to her and she cannot deny it), her not always easy relationship with her daughter (Sarah is much more concerned for people than her mother) and, of course, her relationship with her mother and sister.

Nina is portrayed as a more modern woman and that means one that does not show her feelings, keeping them to herself. Her friend, Susy, believes in love and passion. Nina does not (Have I not heard that our sexual drive is sharpened in times of war, face to face with death and madness.) But Nina prefers Andreas (a bit automatic, perhaps, technical.) She had had affairs before that. Indeed, Arnar was going to be the love of her life. However, one evening, while at a party with Arnar, she meets Gudjon, a lawyer, and walks off with him. The next day, Arnar has left all her things on the pavement. But Gudjon, too, is passed over. Looking back on her forebears, she understands a bit more about struggles in life, struggles which she, on the whole, avoided, and realises how important it is to connect with her past and learn from it. Overall, this really is a first-class novel, dealing with the role of women in Iceland over the years but also how we come to terms with our family and our past as well as with who we think we are.

Publishing history

First published 1990 by Forlagid
First published in English 1995 by Mare’s Nest