In this gorgeous creative nonfiction, Thora Karitas Arnadottir writes with aching beauty, gentle simplicity, and raw truth about her mother, Gudbjorg Thorisdottir. About the appalling abuse she endured at the hands of her grandpa. About how she spent half of her life trying to forget it. The book is a journey – that of a woman who did not seek professional help until she was forty-eight-years-old for the ‘ugly secret’ she had buried most of her life until then, a secret that caused acute claustrophobia.
“It does no good,’ my mother said on her deathbed, ‘carrying your past around on your back. Write your story: the good and the bad.’
As someone who also has many buried memories, these words resonated so powerfully with me. But oh, there is good as well as bad in this story. There are beautiful scenes of the love between Gudbjorg and her mother – memories of suckling at her breast, then looking at her loving face, recallingthe absolutely joyful and perfect emotion. There is her absolute love of poetry and stories. There is a love of the land where she lives, so vividly evoked in the prose.
‘I hardly ever cried when I was a child, however I remember one summer night when I uncharacteristically lost control, and my emotions burst out frighteningly. I was about six.’
The book explores how shame silences the brightest child. How silence then was Gudbjorg’s worst enemy for most of her life. How this silence created a chasm between her and the rest of the world. The abuse began for Gudbjorg at the tender, tender age of one. She knows this because of the particular dresses she wore with knee-highsocks. She even told her own mother that her grandpa had kissed her ‘with his tongue’ but cannot remember that anything happened as a result. When her mother then saw them together, in a painful scene in a bedroom, nothing happened. As a reader I felt such sadness and anger at how Gudbjorg, therefore, continued to bury her pain.
The writing is exquisite – nothing is lost in the translationfrom Icelandic into English. There is such a gorgeous sense of place, enchanting imagery, and every emotion is evoked in deft strokes. The message of survival and forgiveness is strong. Gudbjorg says she is aware that she was definitely ‘bent and contorted’ from her abuse but that she had an inner strength that helped her have a ‘normal’ life, one she is aware many don’t achieve.
‘Stories heal the soul. There’s relief in giving the wings of fiction to life’s secrets and watch them trailing up to heaven like an offering of incense.’
I’ve always felt that stories are powerful. That in fiction we can explore what is too painful to look at directly. So And The Swans Began To Sing really sang to me. It’s a stunning book that I won’t forget for a long time.
And The Swans Begin to Sing by Thora Karitas is published by Wild Pressed Books on 10th January 2019.
Thora Karitas is an Icelandic actress and author and this is the English translation of her Icelandic debut. It’s a narrative non-fiction about her mother’s life in Iceland.
THORA KARITAS ARNADOTTIR studied drama in Britain and is best known for the award winning TV series, Astridur, in her home country and for hosting Unique Iceland, a highly popular travel magazine show about Iceland.
Thora is currently working on her first novel, which will be released in Iceland in 2019.