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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Hotel Silence

Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir

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To purchase Hotel Silence

Title: Hotel Silence
Author: Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir
Genre: Novel
Written: 2016 (Eng. 2018)
Length: 213 pages
Original in: Icelandic
Availability: Hotel Silence - US
Hotel Silence - UK
Hotel Silence - Canada
Ör - France
Hotel Silence - Italia
Hotel silencio - España

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Our Assessment:

B+ : leaves just enough unsaid to be quite effective

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 23/3/2018 Isabel Berwick
Publishers Weekly . 11/12/2017 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "Olafsdottir, instead, excels in noticing and describing the travails of everyday lives on the margins of mainstream Icelandic society. We see those details through our narrator’s eyes. Even the secondary characters are carefully drawn -- there are always eccentricities. " - Isabel Berwick, Financial Times

  • "The story moves at a consistently engaging pace, and Olafsdottir’s blend of sly humor and bleak realities makes for a life-affirming tale without any treacle." - Publishers Weekly

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       On the cusp of fifty, Jónas Ebeneser is in full-blown midlife- and identity-crisis mode. The blow of his recent divorce was magnified by his ex-wife's parting revelation that he wasn't actually the father of their now twenty-six-year-old daughter (and though he hasn't been divorced that long, it's been over eight years since he last had sex). Meanwhile, his octogenarian mother, in an old folk's home, is fading mentally -- though that at least gives him opportunity to be direct with her ("I don't know who I am. I'm nothing and I own nothing") without having to worry about worrying her.
       Jónas' father died just as Jónas was starting university, and instead of continuing with his philosophy studies he took over the family firm, Steel Legs Ltd. He's apparently been successful enough, but it doesn't seem particularly fulfilling, and he's more or less at the end of his rope. He can see little reason to go on, with anything -- "Is there something I still long to experience ? Nothing I can think of" -- and so Jónas decides he might as well end it: he decides to off himself. After borrowing neighbor Svanur's rifle he does have some qualms, about the mess he'll leave behind, and his daughter finding him -- so he decides: "I'll make myself vanish". He buys a one-way ticket to the most dangerous place he can find -- an unnamed country torn apart by war, where:

The situation is said to be precarious, an it is unclear whether the cease-fire will hold. It seems ideal, I could be shot on a street corner or step on a land mine.
       He tidies what little there is to his life -- home, job, bank account -- up, packs his small toolbox and drill ("I might need to put up a hook", he realizes, if he wants to hang himself in his hotel room), some old notebooks -- youthful confessions that he doesn't think should fall into anyone's hands --, and practically nothing else, and sets off.
       The three Gudrúns -- mother, wife, and daughter all share the name, though the daughter is known by her second name, Waterlily -- have been the most important women in his life. Among his wife's complaints about him was that he was uncommunicative -- more echo-chamber, repeating her words, than responsive -- while his mother now goes off on her own tangents, no longer able to engage in regular conversation. Only with Waterlily does he continue to have a close connection -- and so also the novel opens with him getting a tattoo, over his heart, of a waterlily.
       The war-torn country he arrives in is more less how he envisaged it, though he's not even the only hotel guest being picked up at the airport, as an actress who once made a film here has come to see what has become of everything. And there's even another guest at the hotel -- though his motives are considerably shadier, looking to take advantage of the unsettled local situation and profit from it.
       Hotel Silence is run by a brother and sister, Fifi and May; May also has a young son, Adam. The place is pretty run-down -- but Jónas has his little toolbox, and he's handy, and soon he's helping to fix things up. Failing to kill himself on arrival, he of course gets caught up in the life of the locals and begins to find a bit of purpose to his life; some human connection, and being needed, turn out to be pretty much all he needed to get himself out of his funk.
       Carrying his notebooks along, and dipping into them, Jónas wallows some in a barely remembered past. So also he realizes, for example:
On the basis of the quotations here and there, I spent a whole year reading Beyond Good and Evil. That was my year at university. My diary seems to have served as a glossary.
       Dissatisfied, but unclear about why his life no longer felt whole, Jónas goes to a country where everyone is trying to piece together their lives again. There are efforts to restore the hotel, a restaurant, even a whole a building to live in -- all with Jónas' assistance, a small but necessary nudge and expertise that's otherwise largely lacking. There's even a famous mosaic in the hotel -- a tourist attraction--, that Fifi is trying to restore ("Adam is with Fifi in the baths, helping to sort through the body parts and search for three missing breasts").
       People, too, need to be made whole -- and here their damage is often much more obvious than whatever ails Jónas. Some are visibly, physically not whole, having lost limbs in the war and afterwards, because of the still dangerous landmines. And all carry the weight of the horrors of what has happened with them.
       In trying to restore self and nation, past acts must be overlooked. Many of the men killed and raped; many of the women were violated. They can't confront it head-on; they have to move on: as May explains:
"The thing is," she says, "just like we don't talk about who did what, we don't ask who went through what either."
       Auður, too, manages to leave just enough unsaid, which keeps Hotel Silence from being too simplistic. So also the caution displayed by many of the characters -- caution in action and also in approaching one another (Jónas is drawn to May, but also concerned -- she's around the same age as his (non-)daughter; Fifi and May are uncertain whether they can trust Jónas, and so for example withhold the information about the mosaic until they are certain about his motives) -- works well in what would otherwise be a too predictably redemptive story. (Still, even the one painful twist in the story's conclusion seems almost too easily obvious.)
       Hotel Silence manages not to be too simple or saccharine. Auður uses Jónas' notebooks and past well -- and never over-tells or explains; Hotel Silence isn't exactly a novel of few words, or one populated by characters with too few, but Auður manages to suggest considerable weight to all that remains unspoken -- while still presenting a compelling surface-story.
       Even with (and also determinedly because of ...) its dark premise and setting, Hotel Silence is a warm and appealing tale -- that (just) manages to avoid the trap of trying too obviously to be cheerfully life-affirming.

- M.A.Orthofer, 4 February 2018

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Hotel Silence: Reviews: Other books by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Icelandic author Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir was born in 1958.

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© 2018-2020 the complete review

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