|Series: stand alone||Genre: historical fiction|
|Date of Publishing: March 28th 2019||Publisher: self-published|
Quote of the Book
“Often his mind seemed to be a sophisticated torture device that never stopped until he drank too much to think about anything at all.”
In March 1920 Icelandic days are short and cold, but the nights are long. For most, on those nights, funny, sad, and dramatic stories are told around the fire. But there is nothing dramatic about Gunnar, a hermit blacksmith who barely manages to make ends meet. He knows nobody will remember his existence – they already don’t. All he wants is peace, the company of his animals, and a steady supply of his medication. Sometimes he wonders what it would feel like to have a story of his own. He’s about to find out.
Sigurd – a man with a plan, a broken ankle, and shocking amounts of money – won’t talk about himself, but is happy to tell a story that just might get Gunnar killed. The blacksmith’s other “friends” are just as eager to write him into stories of their own – from Brynhildur who wants to fix Gunnar, then marry him, his doctor who is on the precipice of calling for an intervention, The Conservative Women of Iceland who want to rehabilitate Gunnar’s “heathen ways” – even that wicked elf has plans for the blacksmith.
As his defenses begin to crumble, Gunnar decides that perhaps his life is due for a change – on his own terms. But can he avoid the endings others have in mind for him, and forge his own?
The author is an ex-blacksmith, lover of all things Icelandic, physically located in Amsterdam, mentally living in a log cabin near Akureyri. He has published stories and essays in Polish and American magazines, both online and in print. This is his first novel.
I was supposed to read an ARC, but I forgot to put it on my Kindle and when I browsed it Storytellers just kinda whispered at me that I should read it. I always planned to read it, but it wasn’t even on the priority list. Still, I just had to. *shrug* No regrets whatsoever though. Apparently I started to burn out on fantasy and needed a historical fiction break. On the plus side, this will go onto my Armed with a Bingo card. I’ve put it under the ‘A book about friendship/family‘ square.
Song of the Book
Okay, this is a hard one. First I was thinking about picking a Poets of the Fall song, but then as I was travelling I’ve been listening to The Gaslight Anthem and thought this band might be a better match. Too Much Blood might not be an absolutely perfect fit, but it’s good enough.
“Now as my eternal witness to the pride and the shame
Are you worried I say too much?
Are you scared they’ll take me away?
Now I am no devil but I’ve got things on my mind
And they’re gonna come out and they’re gonna come up time to time”
Well, shit, as I’ve been writing this review, my Spotify playlist decided to play It’s Been a While by Staind and fuck me if it’s not THE perfect match for Gunnar. So, I’m gonna make an exception and pick two songs, because the first is more Sigurd’s song anyway.
Storytellers is Bj∅rn Larssen‘s debut novel. And holy shit, I can’t believe it’s only his debut novel. I really shouldn’t be surprised though, because I absolutely did expect a high quality from this book as I’ve been following Larssen‘s blog and always enjoyed his style. Still, blog posts and an entire novel aren’t exactly the same things. It definitely won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but I found myself absolutely enchanted by Storytellers.
This book has two timelines on which we can follow the events – now and then. Now being March 1920 and then being a few decades earlier. The place of all these events are the same: a small village/town near Reykjavík in Iceland. In 1920 Gunnar is a blacksmith, living isolated in his houe with only his dog Ragnar and his horse Karl keeping him company. His days are filled with work, drinking and sleep. He has a miserable life, though he probably doesn’t realise that. One day he saves a stranger and is forced to keep him under his roof until he gets better. To pass the time, Sigurd tells a story to Gunnar about three brothers – Arnar (the one who made his luck in America and came home rich with a beautiful wife), Ingvar (the smart and ambitious one) and Bjarni (the builder with many insecurities) and their lives.
There is a lot more to Storytellers than I would be able to cover in this review. The plot is not particularly complicated or action packed, but I think it suits the book. The real power of Storytellers is in the characters. Everyone has secrets, everyone has an agenda and not many of them are likable. But that makes them feel more real rather than cardboard figures on the pages. The village/town is a small place, the people can’t escape each other and as it happens in places like that, they talk. Whether the things they say is true or not, doesn’t matter. Everyone has their own version of any given event which they don’t fail to share under the pretense of keeping others’ best interest in mind. Or maybe not a pretense, because people are the best at lying to themselves, and if you keep telling yourself something, you’ll believe it sooner or later. I also have to note, that things are maybe exaggerated here of course, but I honestly could symphatise with Gunnar and Juana who just wanted to be left the hell alone.
Some of the characters’ behaviour enraged me more than it should have, because however good intentions are, sometimes people really need the exact opposite we think they need. No one has the right to tell someone else what they need, except maybe therapists and doctors, because they might know a thing or two. Also, forcing one’s company onto others is just wrong on so many levels. I swear I wanted to drown Brynhildur in a glass of water, because she was just so damn annoying like that. I don’t say Gunnar didn’t need help, becuase hell knows he had problems, but not ones which would have been solved by blackmailing and seducing, that’s for sure.
And since I’m talking about Gunnar. He is definitely a complex character and one I rarely saw in fiction up until now. He is an alcoholic with depression to booth and something I’d call social anxiety. He is coping with the loss of his parents still and has basically no one on his side, except his animals, and some so-called friends who try to force some changes on him. As I said, good intentions are admirable and all, but don’t always lead to the best solution. I simultaneously wanted to comfort him and kick his ass. I don’t think that would have been helpful either though.
Storytellers made me think about a couple of things regarding socially acceptable behaviour, mental health, how confined societies work and how I wouldn’t want to live in one like that. About the human neature of wanting to tower above of others in any way – be it being the best at something, knowing something, thinking we are being helpful – basing our actions on the opinion or act of others, because we just can’t help ourselves. There is no such thing as a pure person (see Storytellers) and there is no such thing as selflessness.
But I went off topic. Larssen‘s prose is beautiful and sometimes borders on haunting but then – as I said – I expected as much. It’s kind of a weird book (in a positive way) as it reads fast despite the fact that it’s not full of action. It sometimes makes you feel uncomfortable, sometimes challenges you and sometimes keeps you guessing how the different plotlines will come together in the end, who really did what and who is who. I sure was in for some surprises along the way, especially toward the end.
In terms of criticism, I would have liked to see more of certain characters’ actions, rather than being told things. There were two places in the ‘then’ plotline where I was left confused, because there is a huge gap between events during which things happened which are referenced to, kinda, but we never actually learn what happened. The ending feels a tiny bit rushed and I have so many questions left unanswered. I mean, they are not really important ones, but man, I wanted more.
I can’t really put my finger on it, but there is something magical and enchanting about Storytellers that makes it an unputdownable book, even though there isn’t a single happy person in it. Bjørn Larssen is undoubtedly among the best storytellers I’ve encountered. He grabs you by your gut and keeps wrenching it until the very end. Don’t ask me how he manages to do that, because I’ve no idea.
Storytellers is about personal demons, about the rougher side of life which isn’t improved by the Icelandic weather. It’s about people, about choices and the lies (stories) we tell ourselves. It’s about a lot of things, really, and the more time you spend in Larssen‘s world the more it makes you think. I love when a book does that to you. When you can’t quite let it go and try to puzzle out the things that are left unsaid. If you are looking for a book with a happy ending or one that is going to tell you that life is full of glitters and rainbow, then Storytellers is not for you. And you are going to be poorer for it.