Trilby's Reviews > Far Afield

Far Afield by Susanna Kaysen
Rate this book
Clear rating

's review
Dec 28, 2009

liked it
bookshelves: iceland
Read in January, 2010 — I own a copy

A sort of graduate-student Bildungsroman, this novel centers on the protagonist's year in the Faroe Islands working on his dissertation.
I was pretty excited when I got this book as a gift from my friend Pat, whose college friend at Cornell provided the model for Kaysen's main character, Jonathan Brand. After all, I love all things Northern Atlantic (read: Iceland) and the Faroes are just smaller, more exotic Icelands, right? Well, not quite.

Since I have never been to the Faroes, I took it on faith that this would be an accurate portrayal of the place. Hence I was almost shocked at Kaysen's description of "primitive" folk whose way of life resembles their Viking ancestors'. In addition to killing thousands of fish and birds, they slaughter whole pods of whales, shoot and butcher sheep in their kitchens, and ritualistically torture and kill cats. They are carnivores par excellence, presumably because that is the main food available to them.

I asked Pat about her impression of the book, since she had visited the Faroes last year. She thought the book presented the islands to be way bleaker than they are. In fact, it makes the Faroes into the bleakest, most godforsaken patches of rock on Earth.

What disturbed me as I read the book is that I couldn't reconcile this view of the Faroes with my impression of Iceland. Could they really live so differently on the Faroes? Was everyday slaughter and epic battle with the elements a way of life there?

Then I checked the publication date: 1990. Aha! When the book came out twenty years ago, it was greeted with rave reviews. Readers loved the neurotic grad student protagonist, the satire of village life, the poetic descriptions of land and sea. And so did I. But the Faroes have changed significantly since this book was written, and that, I think, is the source of my problem with it.

Like Icelanders, contemporary Faroese have a 100% literacy rate, and many speak several languages. Just about every family has an Internet connection. But also like Icelanders, they have continued the tradition of whaling. A quick check on Google revealed that the Faroese continue the annual mass slaughter of pilot whales, bringing these sea mammals to the brink of extinction.

Both nations do whaling not because they must have the meat for food, but because it's a time-honored tradition. They do not have to rely on rotten whale sandwiches or sheep's head soup for meals, and fresh food is available year-round. Maybe this just underscores Kaysen's point that violence remains a part of the Norse culture and heritage--although what European culture doesn't have its violent aspects?

The vivid characterizations and wild setting presented in Kaysen's clear and beautiful prose were what I like best about it. But the obviously "metaphorical" excursions into landscape bothered me (too precious) and I got very impatient with self-doubting, intellectual, only-child Jonathan--too much like myself?

Maybe I would've enjoyed the novel more if I had read it as a period piece. But truth to say, I couldn't get through "Moby Dick" for the same reason I skipped over sections describing the mayhem and slaughter in "Far Afield." If I want to read about violence on the North Atlantic islands, I probably should just stick to the sagas. Horses may get pushed off cliffs and a berserker may hack someone's head off, but at least I don't have to read about harpooning, beaching, butchering, and other nasty things happening to whales, or sheep, or cats, or other animals.
1 like · flag

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read Far Afield.
Sign In »

No comments have been added yet.