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Ólafur Jóhann Ólafsson (Olaf Olafsson): Slóð Fiðrildanna (The Journey Home)

Disa is an Icelandic woman who runs a hotel in England with her friend, Anthony, whose father, Lord Lonsdale, owned it. Anthony is gay, so their relationship is just as friends. The hotel is called Ditton Hall and is described by A Gentleman’s Guide to Fine Hotels as beautifully situated at the foot of the Mendip Hills, between Wells to the east and lush farming country to the west. The premises are attractive with a relaxing atmosphere, while the grounds surrounding the three buildings, with their lily ponds and avenues of neatly trimmed hedges, cannot be faulted. Disa is, amongst other things, the cook, something at which she excels and which the Gentleman’s Guide praises. She is also something of a feminist for, when the Gentleman’s Guide people came to Ditton Hall, she criticised them for calling it a Gentleman’s Guide, to Anthony’s horror. Many women now seek out fine hotels, she pointed out to them. They did not comment.

At the beginning of the book, she is off on a journey to Iceland, something she has not done for some time. When the doctor tells her that she has eighteen months at most, we have our suspicions about her reason for the journey, though the real reason is not revealed till the end. The novel starts off with her departure and journey to Iceland, which involves a drive to Leith and then a journey by ship to Iceland. Interspersed with descriptions of the journey is her recounting of her early life. She is the daughter of a doctor, the eldest of four children, though the youngest died, aged one, from tuberculosis. She resents that she has had to spend a considerable amount of her time looking after her younger siblings. She and her sister, Jorunn, go off to commercial school in Reykjavik. Her father manages to obtain a position for her in a bank but she is not interested, to her parents’ disgust. She has helped Mr. Sivertsen, the chef in the Hotel Borg, and wants to become a cook. Mr. Sivertsen helps her get a position at restaurant in London and that is where she is going to go. Her father reluctantly agrees. She fits in relatively well in England, even though the English are restrained and even-tempered by nature. They avoid showing their feelings, and if they’re at all given to self-analysis they keep the fact to themselves. They take care not to bother others with dissertations about their own affairs.

Apart from Disa’ journey and the reason for it, the initial part of the book spends much time celebrating the joys of nature and the joys of cooking and eating, both of which are important to Disa. Initially, she seems to be a kind, generous and loving person However, we gradually see a few chinks in her armour She has an assistant, Marilyn, who was initially hired as a cleaner but showed an interest in cooking and has now become a chef’s assistant to Disa. One day, she informs Disa that she is getting married. Disa is horrified and tries to dissuade, her firstly because she does not seem to know the man well and secondly because Disa would lose a valuable assistant (Some people think about no one but themselves, she says to herself.) Marilyn, in her turn, is bitterly disappointed with Disa’s reaction, having expected full support and, though they continue to work together till Marilyn leaves, there is some bad feeling between the two. Despite this, Disa stays with Marilyn and her husband in their hotel on her way to Leith. We learn about Disa’s poor relationship with her mother, both mother and daughter blaming one another for the problem. She is frightened by a circus monster that seems to speak Icelandic, she is raped, she loses Jakob and a family member commits suicide, all of which colour her personality and mindset.

While in London in the thirties, she meets Jakob Himmelfarb, a German Jew, and they live together in Somerset, with Disa (temporarily) giving up her job in London. It is in Somerset that she will meet Anthony, a college friend of Jakob. Jakob and Disa return to London, with Disa returning to her job in the restaurant. When Jakob goes off to Germany to rescue his parents from the Nazis, Disa goes off to Iceland. For a while she will work looking after an invalid lady but will later return to Anthony and Ditton Hall, where she will spend the rest of her life. Anthony’s sister says they should get married for decency’s sake but then she does not know of Anthony’s occasional escapades. But she ends up relatively happy in her life in Somerset and this book presumably aims to show that, like its author you can make a life for yourself elsewhere, that you will have your travails in life and you must overcome them and you will never shake off your past, particularly if that past is Icelandic.

Publishing history

First published 1999 by Vaka-Helgafell
First published in English 2000 by Pantheon