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Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir: Afleggjarinn (The Greenhouse)

Arnljótur Thórir is a twenty-two Icelandic man, known by various nicknames to his family, though with Lobbi being the most common. He has a brother, Josef, who is just a few hours younger than him – technically a twin but actually born the following day – but who suffered some brain damage at birth. Josef is severely autistic and does not speak. Since their mother’s death, he has been in a home. Their father is a retired electrician who married a woman fifteen years younger than him and was fifty-five when the two boys were born. She was a very enthusiastic gardener and tried very hard in the barren landscape of Iceland to grow plants, particularly roses. In particular she managed to grow a rare rose, an eight-petaled rose, related to the rare Rosa candida (the title of this book in French and other languages). (Everything seemed to blossom in her hands. Bit by bit, the patch grew into a fairy-tale garden that attracted attention and wonderment..) However, one day, while driving over the lava fields, she had an accident and was killed, but not before phoning home and speaking to Lobbi just before she died.

Lobbi had been very bright at school and it was assumed that he would go to university but what he really wants to do is work in gardens, following on from his mother, and grow plants. Lobbi also has a young daughter, the result of a very quick one night stand with Anna, the girlfriend of a friend. It actually took place in his mother’s greenhouse on an old bed that had been left there, about a year after his mother’s death. He has had little contact with mother or daughter, christened Flóra Sól, since then but does feel some responsibility and guilt about the matter. However, he was present at the birth, as Anna needed assistance. He does know that Anna is studying genetics. At the beginning of the book, he is planning to set off to work in a monastery where they have a very special rose garden, which has fallen into disrepair. It is his aim to restore it to its former glory, as outlined in old books he has seen about it. He sees Anna and the child before he leaves. He also takes with him cuttings of the eight-petaled rose, which were in the old monastery garden. Their safe transport to the monastery keeps him preoccupied.

Lobbi travels through various countries en route to the monastery. We do not know the name of any of the countries, including that of the monastery. Indeed, there is no indication, apart from the landscape, that the novel starts in Iceland. We only know that in the country where the monastery is located, the people speak a dying dialect, of which Lobbi knows only a few words, though he does have a book to help him learn the dialect. However, he has problems en route. On the plane, he starts to feel very unwell and it turns out that he has appendicitis. He is rushed to hospital for an appendectomy but is able to recover afterwards at the flat of a friend who lives in the (unnamed) city. His journey continues to be eventful. Eventually, he’s fit to travel and sets off, finding a strange restaurant in a wood in yet another unnamed country and giving a ride to the daughter of the owners in return for board and lodging. Again, he is speaking a language he does not really know yet, surprisingly, seems to be able to name obscure plants. The journey is not uneventful but they do arrive and go their separate ways. Eventually, he makes it to the monastery and meets the film-loving Father Thomas. He finds the garden has been very much neglected, the monks preferring intellectual work to physical labour, and he sets to work. Just as it seems that he has finally found his niche, Anna and Flóra Sól arrive.

This is a gentle but quirky book, about love, responsibility (and assuming responsibility), and about growing up and finding one’s place in life. For Ólafsdóttir, finding one’s place in life is not just about breaking away from one’s parents and finding a job/career but finding what it is that one really wants to do which may well include a career but goes well beyond that. It is also about finding a sense of responsibility and, perhaps more importantly, love towards others, not in a mawkish way but in a sensible, adult way. Ólafsdóttir tells her story very well.and has left us with a gem of a book.

Publishing history

First published 2008 by Salka
First published in English 2011 by Amazon Crossing
Translated by Brian Fitzgibbon