Goodreads helps you keep track of books you want to read.
Start by marking “Heaven and Hell” as Want to Read:
Heaven and Hell
Enlarge cover
Rate this book
Clear rating
Open Preview

Heaven and Hell

(Heaven and Hell Trilogy #1)

4.16  ·  Rating details ·  3,076 ratings  ·  486 reviews
In a remote part of Iceland, a young man joins a boat to fish for cod, but when a tragedy occurs at sea he is appalled by his fellow fishermen’s cruel indifference. Lost and broken, he leaves the settlement in secret, his only purpose to return a book to a blind old sea captain beyond the mountains. Once in the town he finds that he is not alone in his solitude: welcomed ...more
Paperback, 215 pages
Published September 1st 2011 by MacLehose Press (first published 2007)
More Details... Edit Details

Friend Reviews

To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.

Reader Q&A

To ask other readers questions about Heaven and Hell, please sign up.

Be the first to ask a question about Heaven and Hell

Community Reviews

Showing 1-30
Average rating 4.16  · 
Rating details
 ·  3,076 ratings  ·  486 reviews

More filters
Sort order
Start your review of Heaven and Hell

Nothing is sweet to me, without thee.”
I just don’t know who I am. I don’t know why I am.
And I’m not entirely sure I’ll be given time to find out

And I’m not entirely sure what I’ve read.
But I am sure that it was profound, beautiful, and brilliant. A tribute to the tenacity of life and the dark depths of one person’s loyalty, even beyond the watery grave.

It’s one thing to be able to read and another to know how to read.

There is a short, ethereal introduction, whose significance I didn’t
Apr 05, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: When words are the one thing we have.
Recommended to Dolors by: Ema
The world as we know it is composed of a succession of clashing opposites.
Sky and sea, mountains and valleys, ice and water, uproar and serenity.
Life and Death.
Heaven and Hell.
Of the last pair, the nameless boy in Stéfansson’s tale is more familiar with hell.

Hell is being seasick in a sixereen out on the open sea, needing to work and many hours from shore.
Hell is having arms but no-one to embrace.
Hell is a dead person.
Hell is not knowing whether we are alive or dead.

But what about heaven?
Luís C.
The history of this book exerts a remarkable power over the human imagination. Parabolic speech can help the trans-figuration of what we see, feel, and think. In this sense, those who hope to find definitions or stereotypes about hell or paradise are deceived. The fabric of human relations and the metaphorical space of the world is too rich and complex to be crystallized or statist in rigid concepts.

Heaven and Hell does not widen into complex philosophical reflections that, if truth be told,
Diane S ☔
Sep 18, 2019 rated it really liked it
The sea gives and the sea takes away. She is a very harsh mistress as two young men, our handles main character and his friend Baldur. They both love reading and Baldur carries a borrowed copy of Paradise Lost. The need to make money and sign on to work with a fishing crew, a hard, way to make a living. Yet, poverty leaves one with little choice. A terrible event will send our nameless boy off to find a different way of life.

The story is slow, very detailed, but the descriptions are those one
It is the language, the glorious language, that totally won me with this book.

This first book in a trilogy is set in Iceland sometime in the 19th century in a fishing community. It is the story of the boy, a teen who spends some of the year on the fishing boats with his friend, Barthur, a slightly older young man, enthused with life, enjoying reading Paradise Lost, who is about to become another of the thousands of fishermen to lose their lives to the elements. The boy then must determine what
Oct 04, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Dreamers of horizons
Recommended to Himanshu by: Dolors
We might not need words to survive; on the other hand, we do need words to live

My backpack was set, stuffed with all the essentials that I'd need for a trip of my lifetime, as I hoped. I spent a month planning and collecting all the things that I would need, might need, or even might not need, to survive. And pff of course, my Kindle and a paperback, but little did I know that I was carrying a meaning so ethereal yet panoptic until the flight took off and I started reading the first few
Apr 18, 2017 rated it really liked it
Recommended to Cheryl by: Dolors
Hell is not knowing whether we are alive or dead.

Life is that expanse of time that could be green, blue, silver, or black. What color will life take? We don't know the color we will get, nor the moment the tide will change. We are all fishermen, traversing this beautiful and painful sea called life. Life is Heaven and Hell.

"There is hardly anything as beautiful as the sea on good days, or clear nights, when it dreams and the gleam of the moon is its dream. But the sea is not a bit beautiful,
Oct 26, 2018 rated it really liked it
The environment of the novel is harsh and capricious: a physical manifestation of the unseen forces of nature to which we are all subject. Between these elemental forces there is conflict and contrast, darkness and light. But this frame creates diverse subjective experiences; it affects us all in different ways. Jón Kalman explores the inner world of his characters individually and successively, in a manner that reminded me somewhat of Woolf's The Waves. The epic tone is diminished a little in ...more
Aug 20, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Beautiful beyond belief, as stark as Iceland's shores, as full of life, as full of death as Ocean when it roars. A telling worth the hearing by a bard who knows the sea and the land and the men who dwell theron, singing the truth in magic words. Who could improve upon
"Words vary. Some are bright, others dark; April, for instance, is a bright word. The days grow longer, their brightness comes like a spear-thrust into the darkness. One morning we wake and the plover has arrived, the sun has come
This has to be one of the finest books I have read in a very long time. One can open just about any page at random and find a phrase, a paragraph, of such astonishing poetic beauty that one is compelled to re-read it immediately. Jon Kalman said in an interview that, for him, poetry and narrative were the same thing, and he cannot help but blend the two.

The plot is simple, but profound. At its most elemental, it is the coming of age story of an unnamed boy, beset by tragedy, hardship, loss and
Jul 28, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Recommended to Deea by: Dolors
Shelves: favorites, best-2015
What if Hell is a library and you're blind? What can Heaven be?
Dec 21, 2015 rated it really liked it

"Nothing is sweet to me, without thee."- Jón Kalman Stefánsson

Set in a fishing community off the north Icelandic coast, “Heaven and Hell” is an achingly beautiful story about loss and the search for a reason to live when all the light has gone out. The central character is simply referred to as the boy. That he has no name suggests the universality of coming to terms with losing someone we love – an experience from which no one is spared in life.

The book opens with the words “We are nearly
Ms. Smartarse
Our nameless hero lives in an Icelandic village, during the 19th century (I think?). Amidst the unforgiving conditions of this country, our main character's only source of happiness is his best friend Báður. He loves to read more than anything, and dreams of leaving the fishermen's village and its harsh living conditions behind.

Icelandic fishing village

Unfortunately Báður gets so absorbed in Paradise Lost, that he forgets to bring his waterproof on a fishing expedition, and freezes to death. Our protagonist is
A bleak story but full of great imagery of the West of Iceland in the late 1800s.
The central character known only as "the boy" loses his best friend while fishing during a storm. This part of the book is the most intense scene I have read of what it must have been like going off fishing in a small open yawl, leaving at 3 am, rowing for 4 hours, laying the lines, pulling them up and then running into a storm. The cold, I can still feel it.
The boy then returns to the local village (he decides to
May 30, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
It's not about the story, it's about the words, the way the story is put together. You can feel every emotion of every character. The dead souls who work as narrators of the story and the collective "us" in the book somehow brings you right where the author wants you. The images of a storm, or the snow blizzard, or simply the way Pétur sings on the boat to keep the sailors from freezing is marvelous, let alone the way the boy speaks about Bardur. Somehow, you lose contact with your reality as ...more
Paul Fulcher
Aug 05, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2014
"We only ask about things that are easy to answer and never let anyone near. One asks about fish, hay and sheep, not about life"

A beautiful novel – short but intense. Jon Kalman Stefansson is a poet as well as a novelist, and this shows is the beautiful quality of the prose. This is a novel that one reads for the quality of the language – a prose poem – rather than the, rather slight, plot. It’s not a “page turner” – but rather a “page lingerer” – and all the better for that.

The book centres
Alfred Haplo
Idiots. Those boys are idiots, and they move me. For the love of reading Paradise Lost, one dies. For the love of a friend, one almost does. Books and youth are heaven when you have them, hell when you have them together. Characters find comfort in words, in companionship, in beauty, for life is more bearable lived inside out until someone lets the outside in to freeze all that once was life. Hell is never colder than upon death but the warmth of life before, and if we are so fortunate, also ...more
May 02, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I absolutely adored this book. So often, I was left speechless by the intensity of the story and the beauty of the prose. I imagine praise should be given to the translator as well as the author - I can't imagine it was an easy book to properly translate so that all of the emotional depth came across.

There was a great deal of pain, suffering and loss in these pages. Yet people moved on, in spite of how hard that was and often wanting to give up which would have been so much easier. This is what
Nov 24, 2011 rated it it was ok
That awkward moment when you are supposed to be writing your thoughts about a book then you realise you are not exactly sure how you feel about it.

The collective voices from the past come to tell us stories of people long gone and forgotten. In Iceland, a hundred years ago, fishermen prepare to go back to the sea in search for cod, their main source of sustenance and income. Their lives are difficult, bleak. They are poor, the weather is unfriendly, the dangerous sea is both friend and foe and
Julie Kasinski
Aug 29, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2019
It is one of those books that you read, close and reflect on wondering "What did I just read?".

I picked this book totally randomly. The summary at the back cover intrigued me enough and I realised I've never read anything from an Icelandic author. It was enough for me (my interest is easily bought when it comes to book). As I was ready to pay, the owner of my favorite bookshop told me it was easily the best book she has read in 10 years.

It totally captivated me. Usually, I am a book carnivore.
Beth Asma
Sep 07, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I had never heard of Jon Kalman Stefansson & what a loss that lacuna in my recognition was. For 99% of this story, the author's true-to-life story reverberates with unanswered questions about purpose in life & about sin's value in a full life. The story's told from the vantage of an exceedingly shy, fatherless boy, who recently lost his best adult friend Barthur during a gale at sea. That tragedy is fueled by excessively lofty attention to a borrowed copy of Milton's "Paradise Lost" to ...more
May 25, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Beautifully written, poetic evocation of landscape and a way of life, and a study of grief and loss in various forms. "Paradise lost" in its early Icelandic translation plays a part in the plot, and it was interesting to read the translator's note at the end, giving a version of quotations which have been translated back into English alongside Milton's original, which reads very differently. I found it hard to put this book down. There is not really much plot, but it doesn't matter - quite a lot ...more
Sep 19, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2017splichal
It took me forever to read this, for all kinds of reasons. Ultimately, I wanted to like it more but in between the moments of beauty there was also some rambling and choppiness that prevented me from fully enjoying the poetry of Heaven and Hell.
I've bought the second part but I don't think I'll be reading it soon.
Dec 14, 2015 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Hell is a story which mesmerises its reader in the beginning, gives hope for some illumination but eventually does not lead anywhere and leaves the reader in the dark.

Heaven is missing from the story. Hell is present. Earth is also present. The reader is dissatisfied. In faith he embarked on this journey with an unseen, omniscient third person narrator. He follows a boy who remains anonymous throughout. This boy has a best buddy, an idol whom he looks up to. His idol Barthur is not short of
Vinni Dalpiccol
Jul 21, 2015 rated it it was amazing
This is a book about hell. About death, about feeling helpless and having no reason to go on anymore. It’s a book about choices and contrasts.

But heaven is found in the words.

The reality of a village somewhere in northern Iceland in the 19th century is the perfect setting for such a contrast. When everything is as uncertain as it was back in those times, when darkness is all we have for a good half of the year and no matter how much we fight the cold, it will reach us eventually, we have to find
Mar 22, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Such a strange, beautiful book. Halldór Laxness meets Dylan Thomas via fairy tale. A hymn to the constantly shifting scale of heavenly and hellish experience immanent to the expanse of human life. Its rhythms match those of the Icelandic landscapes, which are inseparable from the characters who inhabit them. The narrative voice, which is that of a ghostly chorus who can achieve neither resurrection nor ultimate death, produces a perspective which is bound neither by consciousness nor time, what ...more
Lucy Barnhouse
Apr 22, 2016 rated it really liked it
This is a stunning book. I bought it in the Reykjavik airport, and not only was I spellbound during my flight, I've remained haunted by it ever since. Stefánsson's language is rich and resonant, and gives a story of ordinary men and women, doing ordinary work, dimensions of the mythical. It seems that they deserve nothing less, that these stories of black coffee, days of fishing, nights of tale-telling, could be told in no other way. I loved this book; it's going to be one of those that I insist ...more
Marcia Letaw
Feb 23, 2016 rated it it was amazing
When reading Heaven and Hell, I recommend wrapping up in a fluffy comforter with a steaming cup of hot chocolate riding shotgun. Only in this way will it be possible to survive fishing on the raging Polar Sea! Such is the power of Jon Kalman to weave environment and humans alike into the poetry of his writing because you can't have one without the other. In his own words: ". . . there is nothing to see in Iceland except mountains, waterfalls, tussocks, and this light that can pass through you ...more
Georgi Dimitrov
Dec 15, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Maybe it has to do with the fact that the author is from Iceland and I haven't read a lot of Nordic literature, but this book definitely fascinated me and I'm super happy that I finish 2015 with it, plus it was recommended by someone whose opinion is highly valued in the whole country of Bulgaria so yeah, the combination of all of the above says it all, you'll just want to keep reading it ( :
Ken Fredette
Aug 21, 2015 rated it really liked it
It was a good turn of the century story of a boy and his friend Bardur. They were on the crew of a local cod-fishing boat which turns to problems when Bardur forgets his all weather coat and freezes to death. The boy is heart broken at his friends death and swears he will return a book that his friend was reading. The story goes on from there.
« previous 1 3 4 5 next »

Readers also enjoyed

  • Korngult hár, grá augu
  • Ungfrú Ísland
  • The Good Shepherd
  • Ljósa
  • Agathe
  • Mikecs Anna Altató
  • Anathemas and Admirations
  • Byens Spor: Ewald og Maj (Byens Spor #1)
  • Sextíu kíló af sólskini
  • A végtelen térségek örök hallgatása
  • Byens Spor: Skyggebogen (Byens Spor #3)
  • L'impero della polvere
  • Grădina de sticlă
  • Stormfuglar
  • To Siberia
  • aceste lucruri care nu se vor schimba niciodată
  • Părinți
  • Salka Valka
See similar books…
Jón moved to Keflavík when he was 12 and returned to Reykjavík in 1986 with his highschool diploma. From 1975 – 1982 he spent a good deal of his time in West Iceland, where he did various jobs: worked in a slaughterhouse, in the fishing industry, doing masonry and for one summer as a police officer at Keflavík International Airport. Jón Kalman studied literature at the University of Iceland from ...more

Other books in the series

Heaven and Hell Trilogy (3 books)
  • Harmur englanna
  • Hjarta mannsins
“...o Inferno é ter braços mas ninguém a quem abraçar.” 16 likes
“The hours are numerous and the clock seldom measures the time that passes inside us, the real lifetime, and because of this many days can fit into a few hours, and vice versa, and numbers of years can be an imprecise measure of a man's lifetime, he who dies at forty has perhaps actually lived much longer than he who dies at ninety.” 14 likes
More quotes…