- Disappearing Worlds in Life WritingThe Year in Iceland
The year 2018 saw the publication of a variety of auto/biographical works in Iceland, with a broad range of thematic and stylistic approaches. The works I have chosen to focus on here caught the attention of critics and readers alike in very different ways. The works include a delving into a family's difficult past, reflections on people on the margins of society, and musings on the death of the book. What they have in common is that they all focus on a group rather than an individual—a family, a group of artists, a social group—and in one way or another they all examine a lost or disappearing world. This, one could argue, is one of the main themes of life writing in general, but here the authors all convey a palpable sense that they are writing about a world that has been disappearing in the last few decades due to changing mores and social conditions, and the advent of new technologies.
Poverty and Abuse in Women's Lives
One of the most popular (and talked about) autobiographical works from 2018 was by Ásdís Halla Bragadóttir, a former right-wing politician and a private health care entrepreneur. Hornauga is the second volume of her memoirs; the first volume, Tvísaga: Móðir, dóttir, feður, was published in 2016, which translates as "Double talk: Mother, daughter, fathers." The volumes recount a dramatic and extremely difficult family saga, which is in some ways typical of the stories of childhood abuse and other difficulties we have become very familiar with in recent decades, but in some ways it parts from that tradition as well. The two books follow the lives of Bragadóttir's parents and their ancestors, which might seem straightforward enough, but the past is a complicated and obscure world in their lives, where it is difficult to get to the truth of the matter. Her mother, on whom the first volume focuses, was raised in extreme poverty and experienced horrifying abuse and hardships. As for her father, the stories Bragadóttir heard about his identity are revealed to be baseless (hence the book's title), and the search for her biological father turns out to be a much more tortuous road than she first envisaged. The past has been [End Page 80] silenced and ignored in a variety of ways and for all kinds of reasons, but not least because of the family's unwillingness to face up to past traumas.
The two volumes are a mixed bag of, on the one hand, careful historical research, and on the other, an almost melodramatic rendering of the results of this research. The search for the story of her mother's early life and the search for her own biological father are characterized by a painstaking uncovering of the traces of the lives of people, women especially, who lived in extreme poverty in early and mid-twentieth-century Iceland. The volumes detail the hardships and abuse such women were the victims of, and the result of this traumatic past as encountered by the author in her childhood and upbringing. The difficulty in facing the horrors of the past and the posttraumatic effects from which her mother suffered and made her incapable of dealing with her childhood, are at the center of the story. The author is living with the postmemory of these events, and she has an astute eye for the effects they had on family life, not least on her mother's emotional life and continuously high levels of anxiety, as well as the muddied tale surrounding Bragadóttir's own father. The first volume is in many ways effective and powerful, though at times marred by a rather stilted and old-fashioned narrative style, where the narrator recreates and reimagines scenes and conversations from the past with mixed results. But it is also characterized by a strong empathy for her family members, despite the negative influences their behavior may have had on her childhood. Bragadóttir conveys a clear sense of the few choices on offer for women in poverty, and...