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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Children in Reindeer Woods

Kristín Ómarsdóttir

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To purchase Children in Reindeer Woods

Title: Children in Reindeer Woods
Author: Kristín Ómarsdóttir
Genre: Novel
Written: 2004 (Eng. 2012)
Length: 198 pages
Original in: Icelandic
Availability: Children in Reindeer Woods - US
Children in Reindeer Woods - UK
Children in Reindeer Woods - Canada
Children in Reindeer Woods - India
  • Icelandic title: Hér
  • Translated by Lytton Smith

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Our Assessment:

B+ : well-presented, impressively unsettling

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times Book Rev. . 15/4/2012 Helen Oyeyemi
Publishers Weekly . 30/4/2012 .
World Literature Today . 11-12/2012 Shaun Randol

  From the Reviews:
  • "In Lytton Smith’s translation, its tone is placid throughout, a smooth skin that stirs only slightly, for laughter’s sake or to tremble in anticipation of violence. (...) These relationships may sound hopelessly somber, but they’re enacted with buoyant theatricality as the characters probe the limits of identity, trying to discern the rules for being a child, a dancer, a husband, a wife. Omarsdottir’s skills as a poet and playwright are particularly evident in the deranged and strangely affecting soap-opera dialogue Billie invents for her dolls" - Helen Oyeyemi, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Ómarsdóttir revels in the power-play that their precarious co-existence entails, suffusing this work with a commixture of horror, comedy, and delight." - Publishers Weekly

  • "The coupling of Rafael and Billie is, on the face of it, dubious at the least, and creepy at worst; how can the two overcome such trying conditions? The parent-child relationship of Rafael and Billie during a time of extreme circumstances is reminiscent of the father-son tandem in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Occasionally, Children in Reindeer Woods also presents a unique reading experience. Ómarsdóttir sometimes uses a trick usually reserved for poetry: repetition." - Shaun Randol, World Literature Today

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:

       Children in Reindeer Woods is set largely in a sort of foster home and farm called 'Children in Reindeer Woods' (the original Icelandic title of the novel was the much more stark Hér -- 'here'). There's a war going on, but this locale is pretty far (if not entirely) removed from it, and most everything else: "you could count the cars that had driven along the highway this past month on the fingers of one hand".
       As far away as it might seem to be from the war, this is no safe idyll. The novel begins with three soldiers coming to the farm and slaughtering everyone except one of the girls. Then one of the soldiers kills his two comrades. The remaining soldier is Rafael, the girl the eleven-year-old Billie, and Children in Reindeer Woods is their story.
       It is a disturbing opening, and an uncomfortable tension remains in the air: Rafael has decided to settle down here -- to simply and, if necessary, forcefully reshape his entire reality -- and won't let anyone get in his way. Others visit -- a soldier is sent to investigate, tax collectors come by -- and Rafael ... takes care of them. There's a ruthlessness to him -- even the chicken that poops in the house is made an example of -- yet he is neither complete brute nor complete innocent. He commands Billie, and goes through at least the motions of threatening her, but also takes care of her. He attempts to create a new life for himself, complete with farm animals, but given the circumstances it is, of course, hardly a natural fit. So too his instant relationship with Billie, who shifts back and forth in roles from captive to daughter to idealized innocent ("This girl is the radiance in this land. The light of her generation") to wife.
       All this sounds pretty awful and creepy, but what's so surprising is that it's not. True, there's no getting around the awfulness of what Rafael does, but it is almost incidental -- a necessary evil that we more or less block out, just as, after they return to civil life, we block out the unspeakable horrors soldiers everywhere have perpetrated. Kristín doesn't let the reader off easily, but the awful deeds Rafael is responsible for are decorously handled and not reveled in. There's no getting around the unnaturalness of his trying to live a 'normal' life in his new surroundings -- but what Kristín presents here is merely the unnaturalness of war writ large.
       Much of the success of the novel comes in the portrait of Billie, and her trying to come to terms with the situation, from the seeming randomness of being the one spared to adjusting to this man who continues to make life and death decisions. From her imagined dialogues with her Barbie dolls to the memories of the parents she is separated from but who remain an influential memory, Billie is presented as a child trying to make sense of and survive in these unusual conditions, without Kristín ever forcing the issues. So, for example, Billie is not presented as quickly maturing into a mini-adult: she adapts, but in her own childish way. With this, as almost everything in the book, the author shows a remarkably controlled hand.
       Billie's presence is necessarily humanizing, keeping Rafael from losing himself entirely in a fantasy world. He recognizes his need for such a presence: "I was not joking when I spared you from my gunshots", he tells her. She is a necessary part of what is a vaguely imagined new Eden which he doesn't quite know how to achieve.
       Yes, it's all quite odd (and Kristín is particularly good at making it odd), but it's also surprisingly charming. Yet Kristín is also careful never quite to dispel that very unsettling feeling that this unnatural story elicits.
       Unusual and memorable, Children in Reindeer Woods is a striking work of fiction.

- M.A.Orthofer, 24 July 2012

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Children in Reindeer Woods: Reviews: Kristín Ómarsdóttir: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Icelandic author Kristín Ómarsdóttir was born in 1962.

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© 2012 the complete review

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