Subtitled the boy who never was, Icelandic writer Sjón’s Moonstone is a brief, deeply felt novella. As it weaves dreams into reality, storytelling through tragedy, it is also unsettling, and a little dissatisfying. There is magic here, but the illusion can leave you feeling tricked and lost.
October 1918 is already a time of profound change for Iceland – World War I is raging on outside, the Katla volcano erupts, independence from Denmark is close – and then the Spanish flu comes ashore. Hundreds are killed and the streets of Reykjavik are empty except for the boy who never was, 16 year old Máni Steinn, a dreamer and film lover, hovering on the edge of society, weaving his fantasies into the city scenes. It is a historical setting at a time of significant transformation, but the isolation of the misfit boy is deeply familiar.
Sjón startles from the first page, pulling the reader out of any dreaminess the washed-landscape cover might evoke. Because while Máni is a fantasist, we are not allowed to indulge ourselves. Any romanticism or imaginings come from the boy himself, while Sjón tightly manages and structures the storytelling.
There are interesting parallels between film technique and this tale, beyond the projections that Máni creates. Ideas of representation and illusion, as well as those of morality, are toyed with here, sometimes to dangerous conclusion. But in this story, the dreamer is not a creator but withdrawn from society – creation is entirely internal, not shared on the screen like the movies he so loves.
Things get darker and tripper as the book continues, each chapter short and controlled, taking gaps in time and location, leaving us to catch up. Máni’s reality becomes more warped but the structure remains the same.
“Glancing at his hands, he discovers that he can see right through them. He gropes for his body and finds that he is clutching at thin air. He can’t feel a thin apart form the wingbeats where his heart used to be.”
Along with Margaret Atwood and David Mitchell, Sjón has become the third writer to contribute to Future Library, a public artwork spanning 100 years, investing in the kind of literature we want the future to see. It is esteemed company. In a way, this selection makes sense, there is a complement of styles, a diversity of representation and communication, that contributes towards a wholeness. But Moonstone does not recommend Sjón as a writer to me. I appreciate the structure, the aims, the approach of this book, but in its totality the cleverness undermines the reader. The illusion can be a joke on us.
Perhaps what Sjón touches on here is profound – and there is so much pulled in here with a real lightness – but the magician distracted from the magic. I suppose I do not want to only marvel at his talent, but I want to enjoy the tricks. Moonstone is deeply felt, miniaturist and intricate, but is somewhat undermined by its own mastery.