Sheenagh Pugh (sheenaghpugh) wrote,
Sheenagh Pugh

Review of "Heida: A Shepherd at the Edge of the World"

Review of "Heida: A Shepherd at the Edge of the World" by Steinunn Sigurdardottir and Heida Asgeirsdottir, trs Philip Roughton, pub. John Murray 2019

This is a memoir of a real woman, Heida Asgeirsdottir, an Icelandic sheep farmer, written down by a novelist and poet, Steinunn Sigurdardottir. The latter admits to being influenced in her narrative methods by the books of Svetlana Alexievch, which are based on interviews with many different people. They're good too, I like them myself, but am not sure the technique works so well for reporting one person. The chapters are mainly short, some only one paragraph, and read like bits of random conversation transcribed, then cut and pasted into what sometimes feels like a fairly arbitrary order. The organisation into four seasons does help, but within that pattern, different autumns, winters etc are jumbled together; the book veers wildly between childhood and adulthood and from subject to subject. Also, the story of Heida's fight against the proposal for a huge power plant that would wreck her farm is interspersed with the life of the farm. To me, this narration is too bitty and stop-start.

Heida is interesting on the daily routine of the farm, and often very enlightening:

"If I manage to shear all the sheep on the same day I bring them in, that's a dream because they're like marshmallows, all dry and puffy. The ewes mustn't be inside for more than one night before being sheared, otherwise their wool gets spoiled and has to be marked as second-rate. It's crucial to keep the wool from becoming moist or wet, so that it doesn't start to get mouldy."

Who knew? There's a lot of this and it is fascinating. it would be more so if this book had the map it really needs – I do know roughly where's where in Iceland but needed far more detail about this district, the distances between places and the potential effect of the power plant. A map would have given all of this.

Another problem is the poems, some Heida's, some quotes from famous Icelandic poets. Since all alike come across as total rhyme-led doggerel, I suspect there is a translation problem, related to a determination to preserve the rhymes, which I have come across before in Icelandic novels that contain poems. I think a lot of epigrammatic sharpness goes missing because most prose translators do not really have the specialised expertise to translate poems.

To sum up: much interest but a terribly bitty structure.
Tags: book reviews, non-fiction, translation
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