Book of the Month
Home to My Heart
Worn-out heart in a brown paper bag
“I lie in bed in a sanatorium, struggling to resist sleep, but then I recall that I'm allowed to fall asleep; I've got a sleep certificate, a stamp on my bum: Burnt Out. The reason for my condition remains unknown, but I believe that my quest for an understanding of love, which I see as my life's work, has had a traumatic effect on me, because I could not fine-tune my heart. I came here in search of help, with the remnants of my worn-out heart in a brown paper bag.”
This is the opening paragraph of Heim til míns hjarta: Ilmskýrsla um árstíð á hæli (Home to My Heart: a perfume report on a season at the sanatorium) by Oddný Eir Ævarsdóttir, published by the Bjartur publishing house before Christmas. A woman with a crushed heart is declared “burnt out” by the specialists at the sanatorium, where she embarks on a process of rehabilitation where many and diverse treatments are offered: her thoughts are cleansed, her dreams interpreted, her aura read; and her heart is distilled to make a perfume. Thus the narrator undertakes a bizarre and adventurous journey through the history of healing and the philosophy of treatment, which is also an inward journey, home to the heart, where the innermost crannies of her life are opened up, with hope of renewal.
Several reviewers judged the book to be an outstanding contribution to the prose works published for the Christmas book trade, and it was nominated for a DV Culture Award 2010. The jury expressed the view that Oddný had succeeded in establishing a special place for herself among Icelandic writers, through only two published works: “Oddný Eir explores her own heart without mercy [...]. The impression is scholarly, investigative, and at the same time fantastical. She plays with narrative form in a well-thought-out and refined manner, and addresses fundamental issues on the objectives and possibilities of fiction.”
Boundaries of scholarship, fiction and fact
Oddný Eir was born in 1972 in Reykjavík. She studied philosophy at the University of Iceland, graduating with an MA in political philosophy. In recent years she has been pursuing doctoral studies at the Sorbonne and EHESS in Paris, while also carrying out research in Icelandic museum field studies and art. For a time she ran the Dandruff Space art gallery in New York with her brother, archaeologist Uggi Ævarsson. They have also run a joint publishing venture, Apaflasa/Monkey Dandruff.
Home to My Heart is the character's complex interior adventure, and at the same time the author's settling of scores with the academic world, love and herself. Oddný's first book, Opnun kryppunnar: Brúðuleikhús/Opening the Hunchback: A Puppet Show, was published in 2004. In this unusual book she brought together scholarship, autobiography and fiction. In Home to My Heart she again pushes the boundaries of scholarship, fiction and reality, until they merge into one and the different writing forms begin to mix. Here she works with her ideas in a different way, leaning more towards literary writing, and moving into pure fantasy. The sanatorium where the narrator is a patient is a undefined place, which becomes more bizarre as the story progresses: the narrator comes across patients and specialists offering treatments, each weirder than the last, recalling such works as Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. The book thus provides many planes of discourse, creating a humorous, fertile narrative, driven by the author's inventiveness and playfulness.
“I do not speak of anything unless I have reliable personal experience of it.”
The philosophy of the book is signalled by two epigraphs. One is from Nietzsche: “Surely the world shall become a sanatorium! And even now it is enfolded in a healthy, new fragrance – and new hope.” The other is from St. Theresa of Avila: “I do not speak of anything unless I myself have reliable experience of it.” Oddný, as before in Opening the Hunchback, puts herself on the line, and unflinchingly acknowledges that the “I” of the book is herself. Yet the book is anything but a conventional autobiography, straddling the boundary of fiction and fact, as Oddný places herself in a fictional text which is founded on her own journals, letters and academic writing.
Home to My Heart is a work of great profundity, innovative and frank. The import of the book is that the author has much to say, and she draws the reader with her into a spiral of curiosity. As critic Páll Baldvin Baldvinsson wrote in his review in daily Fréttablaðið: “This is a text which the reader will often revisit in search of comfort and improved wellbeing in so many different fields – for a perfume report is good for you.”