This is an absolutely riveting debut novel. Told from alternating points of view of two young artists, one a musician and the other a painter, whose gifts are thwarted by drugs, violence and a corrupted world view. Zlata is a singer/songwriter who comes from a loving and supportive family, Hamish is the artist – and tagger – who is from a dismal background and who is knee-deep in self-loathing. The two spy each other across a crowded room and in another world their love may have managed redemption. But in Auckland with a widening gap between the haves and have nots, where drugs are pushing the natural us/them tendencies to grotesque levels, and where artistic success is seen as a cop out – there is not all that much room for redemption.
The narrative of the novel not only alternates point of view, but also tense – Zlata speaks in the past tense and Hamish in the present – so there is a sense of looming tragedy throughout. The descriptions of a warped sense of reality provided by drugs and alienation that leads to terrible acts, allow those acts to be at once understandable and reprehensible. And this makes the reader – at least this one – both conflicted by and engaged with the characters. Hamish’ world view has collapsed to almost nothing – everyone and everything he encounters is stink, he can’t accept the help of friends, and the tension in the novel is whether he is going to allow Zlata to soften his rigid outlook.
Zlata is not that different from Hamish, but she does have the sliver of a sliver of light within her, which makes her the stronger of the two characters. All of their cohort are described fully, as is Auckland and the other physical environments in the book. The pivotal event that sends the endless round of bad decision-making flying off course, is a terrible crime that is really just a fluke, emerging as it does from a routine of posturing, drugs and violence.
The writing in Iceland verges on the poetic, but doesn’t tip into pathos, the characters are robust enough to mostly deserve the bad things that happen to them. Hamish’ self-pity only makes sense from within his world view: “There’s nothing as hopeless as being broke. Everyone gets a say in your life. You’re not allowed secrets, you can’t act on your impulses, you have to turn up when you’re told, stand naked with your fucking hand out” – none of which describes the observed Hamish at all. And Zlata with her fraction of hope: “I gorged myself at least three times and drank so much beer I was staggering by the time the shadows grew sharp. I was raw inside from where the drugs had eaten away at me, but I was happy.”
Iceland is a sad and hopeless tale about diminishing hope and expectations – but one well worth reading for its beauty and its insight.