Audur Ava Olafsdottir is a remarkable novelist. Iceland, of course, is held to be the most literate country in the world. I began reading Icelandic fiction of a considerably earlier period while living in Scotland. There was still a trace of Scandinavian heritage from Viking days discernible there, particularly in the Orkney Islands. I started taking on reading challenges three years ago. Given that I spend many hours a week sitting on a bus, it seemed natural enough to put my time toward a specific goal. The Modern Mrs. Darcy’s reading challenge encourages me to move beyond the bounds of my usual fare. One of the categories for this year’s challenge is a translated book. I enjoyed Olafsdottir’s Butterflies in November so much last year that I selected The Greenhouse for this year’s translated offering.
The story of two young people who accidentally have a child together, the tale makes effective use of religious imagery in reflective ways. The young man takes a job in a monastery rose garden in a remote country. When his one-night stand visits him to have him watch his daughter while she finishes her thesis, everyone notices how miraculous the child is. She even bears a striking resemblance to baby Jesus in the painting in the chapel. The narrative is gentle and reflective. The monks are drawn out of their scriptorium by the beauty of the roses and the child that is so intimately tied up with them. There’s nothing preachy, or even overtly religious here. It’s a simple reflection that religion pervades life, even in secular Europe.
One of the saddest realities of the present is that religion has made itself so odious to so many. Human beings are naturally inclined toward religious thoughts and behaviors. When any form of orthodoxy enters the picture, though, it begins to fall apart. The young couple, unmarried—not even girlfriend and boyfriend really—transform the town they’re in, making it a more habitable and humane place. They’re not condemned for “living in sin.” Even a priest admits things can get pretty complicated where relationships are concerned. A coming of age novel, The Greenhouse has Icelandic magic that comes through even in translation. Olafsdottir is a novelist who doesn’t feel the need to apologize for describing what is plainly obvious to those who pay attention: religion is all around us, and it need not be something to condemn. In fact, if cultivated without the acidic soil of orthodoxy it might even make the world a better place.