The Promise of Iceland

The title of Kári Gíslason’s memoir evokes much of what it took for him to get to this point: The Promise of Iceland. It’s hopeful, it tantalises, it indicates a searching, a lack.  Born to a British mother in Reykjavik from a secret liaison with an Icelandic man, this sets him up for a life across the world, in three different countries, searching for home, ruminating on the mythology of family, and a country.

Gíslason spoke at the Sydney Writers Festival this year, and the heartfelt passion he had for Iceland made my mother, in attendance, think of me, and the incredible experience I had when I visited last year.  Physically it seems a place of extremes with it’s endless summer days and endlessly dark winter ones; formed and still being shaped by volcanic activity; a small island with such an incredible history; populated by stunning viking descendants; full of pride and folklore and myth.  It’s beautiful.  I loved the country, so mum bought the book, asked Gíslason to sign it, and it had arrived on my doorstep within three days.

And it’s a finely crafted story.  Based on an ultimately sad premise – that of people searching through countries to find a sense of belonging – it is quietly driven by this heartfelt recollection of all that has come before.  Born in Iceland, Gíslason moved regularly between Iceland, England and Australia, growing up knowing who his father was, but honouring his mother’s promise to him to never reveal his father’s identity.  In his gap year, Gíslason returned again to Iceland, a kind of coming home, and arranged to meet his father.  He found himself repeating his mother’s old promise to his father to keep the secret and left confused, unsatisfied, and just as lost.

Iceland tugs at Gíslason: he specialises in the Icelandic sagas in his academic career and returns again and again, traveling the country as if searching for the relationship he wants with his father.  He’s looking for meaning in the landscape, a sense of belonging, trying to understand the father who rejected him as if somehow by knowing the country he can know the man who grew up there.

There is a quiet beauty emanating out of Gíslason’s writing.  He clearly loves the country; he was clearly tortured by his relationship by his father; he was clearly conflicted by his decision to break his promise and seek out his half siblings.

The streams in the saga stood for fate, for the point at which your course in life seemed inevitable, but also for what the mountains did to everyone all the time: shaping their relation to the sea and the narrow stretches of farmable land that met it.  In the Westfjords, you were forever being tipped into the water.  But the fjords also sharpened your perception of the sky, which was shaped by the flat, sharp ledges of the mountains.

Gíslason explores the significance of place in people’s lives; equating landscape with identity, finding homes to suit that stage of life.  He, his relatives, his friends are constantly travelling, searching for a home, listening to the itchy feet that push you on.  There is an intelligent, raw honesty in the story.

Kári Gíslason is a beautiful writer, modest and honest.  He is a man searching for his father, and engaging with ideas of home, be it in people, or family, or the countries we live in.  The answer never really is clear, but the openness and peace he finds in this not-quite-complete memoir (as he continues to live his life) shows the complexity and ongoing growth of a person’s identity and home.

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