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Steinunn Sigurðardóttir: Góði Elskhuginn (The Good Lover)

Karl Ástuson (we only learn his name later; initially he is merely called The traveller) is an Icelander, who has spent much of his adult life abroad. He owns a house on Long Island and one in the South of France. While abroad, he has had a series of short-term affairs, often just one-night stands. Few have made any impression on him. Lotta looks after him in the US but they are not lovers. Only one lover has made much impression – Doreen Ash. Initially she was just another one-night stand. After sex, he is sitting in his living room, hoping that she will hurry up and shower and then go. However, she asks for a drink and he feels obliged to offer her one. They start talking. He learns that she is a psychiatrist but is thinking of giving up her practice to focus on writing. She is tired of all her clients, who all seem the same. They think that the rest of the world are idiots and, in particular, their parents. She is writing a book on mother-son relationships, primarily because she feels that many men have been spoiled by their mothers and are therefore not fit for the world, nor fit for a loving relationship with a woman, as no woman can compare to their mother. However, she tells him that he is a good lover, though, in her view, women are generally better lovers than men. Karl had a doting mother. He was the child of a second marriage – he has a half-sister twelve years older than him – and his mother devoted herself to him, to the disgust of his half-sister. When she died, when he was eighteen, he was devastated. Doreen leaves soon after and they do not plan to meet again but he cannot get her conversation out of his mind.

At the beginning of the book, he suddenly decides to return to Iceland, for no apparent reason. He arrives on a cold and dark February night and goes to his house in Reykjavik at once. Though there is food in the house, he does not want Icelandic food but a hot dog and Coca-Cola. He goes to a hot-dog place – we learn later that he goes there because he had been there many years ago with his then girlfriend, Una – but is bemused by the choice, which did not exist before. He sees some roses and, on an impulse, buys some and then hails a taxi. He gives the taxi driver a specific address and we soon learn that this is the house where Una lives. When he gets there, it is late. He sees a woman in her dressing gown draw the curtains but is still hesitant to go in. He leaves a single rose on the doorstep and then leaves to find a taxi. Instead he finds a bar called The Yellow Sheep and goes in. He is the only customer but while he is drinking, a woman comes in. They start talking and he soon realises that she is the sort of woman he would normally have a one-night stand with. He lies to her about who he is. However, when he is tired and ready to leave, instead of getting the taxi to take him home, he goes back with the woman, Sigríður. It turns out that she lives next door to Una and knows her well. Sigríður goes to bed, after giving him something to eat and he goes to bed in the spare room but, having been offered the sauna, decides to use it. Afterwards, he realises what he has to do and he gets Sigríður to phone Una. Una comes over in her dressing gown and, almost immediately, tells him she has had enough of her husband and is ready to leave with him, though she will miss her house, which she loves. And off they go, just like that.

Both seem happy to turn their back on their country (Karl says that the only Icelandic product he cannot live without is cod liver oil). They have an idyllic week together in the South of France (he names it dream time). He had already furnished the house the way he thought she might like it, well before they planned to get back together. Eventually, they move to his house on Long Island and everything seems to be going well, till Doreen Ash reappears in his life. She has written a book, part novel, part psychiatric analysis. It is called The Good Lover and it seems to be about him.

This is an excellent story by Sigurðardóttir on love and its complications, on the past catching up with you and on what we really want and how we do not always get it. Throw in the mummy’s boy/Oedipus theme, the idea that all too many people think everyone else is an idiot, particularly their parents and the theory that women are better lovers than men and you have an original and fascinating novel which sadly, is not available in English.

Publishing history

First published 2009 by Mál og menning
First English translation in 2015 by World Editions
Translated by Philip Roughton