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by Kristin Ómarsdóttir
Translated from the Icelandic by Lytton Smith
Reviewed by Lisa Sanders

The opening scene of this novel left me reeling, and I remained rather stunned throughout the book. In a few short, staccato pages, Ómarsdóttir creates a world where the absurdity and casual brutality of war is played out against a backdrop of bucolic beauty and rural quiet. The surprising ways in which the author contrasts war and peace, violence and innocence, are highlighted by the sparse, matter of fact language. Readers are kept in a state of tension broken by absurd moments that seem funny until the next page. This review is of necessity brief, because to disclose too much of the novel would deprive readers of the surprises contrived to keep them off balance.

Much is left to the imagination in this novel. The setting, for instance, is a remote valley of some unnamed country, during a time of war between unknown factions. A small group of adults and children live in a valley farmhouse, known as Children in Reindeer Woods. It is unclear if the farm is a sanctuary for children during the war or a children's home of some sort. The protagonist, eleven-year-old Billie, loves colorful clothes, uses her Barbie dolls to act out violent adult relationships, and believes she might be retarded. In the opening scene, Rafael arrives with his military unit to secure the valley and brutally clears the stage so that he can act out his fantasy of being a farmer. In an act as inexplicable as the violence, Billie is spared by the troubled young soldier, and an uneasy and outré relationship develops between the two.

By turns ignoring, attacking, and flirting with her captor, Billie balances on the developmental fence of childhood and adolescence. At times she seems precocious, at others, developmentally delayed. She follows her absent mother's instructions on how to make polite conversation and muses about her father, whom she describes as a puppet, controlled by beings from another planet, but she doesn't seem to miss their presences. Rafael is equally enigmatic. A city boy, he revels in the simple, quiet routines of farm chores, yet responds erratically to minor setbacks and surprises. Each time a stranger appears in the valley, Rafael must decide how to react based on his confused sense of duty, protectiveness, guilt, and fear.

With its absurdist elements and lack of context, Children of Reindeer Woods is a modernist page-turner with a bizarre but compelling plot. At times, I read quickly, wondering where the author was going next. At other times, I felt lost in a sea of metaphors within metaphors. This is Kristín Ómarsdóttir's first book to be translated into English, although in her native Reykjavík, Iceland, she is known for her poetry, plays, and visual art, as well as novels. I'm curious to know if this is a typical representation of her writing style, and I hope this book is the catalyst that will bring more of her works to an English reading audience.

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