Book review - Heaven and Hell

Set at the turn of the twentieth century in a remote corner of Iceland, Jón Kalman Stefánsson uses the harsh world of a fishing community to explore weighty subjects such as life and fate, love and loss and the power of the imagination.

Here the ocean offers sustenance, in the form of abundant shoals of cod, but can steal a life just as easily. Many of the fishermen have never learned to swim and their profession is a dangerous one – a sudden squall can capsize a boat in seconds.

A nameless boy and his older friend, Barður, share a love of books. When the weather is considered too dangerous for fishing, they trek for over two hours to the nearest village to pick up provisions and borrow books from a blind old sea captain, Kolbeinn.

It is the cold that kills Barður on their next sea voyage when, distracted by some lines from Paradise Lost that he wants to memorise, he forgets his waterproof jacket. For Barður, “words still seem to be able to move people, it is unbelievable, and perhaps the light is thus not completely extinguished within them, perhaps some hope yet remains, despite everything.” But his love of poetry is the reason for his fatal act of carelessness.

For the boy, whose father drowned when he was six and who lost his mother and sister a few years later, Barður’s death is devastating. He resolves to return the book to its owner, the old seaman, and then to end his own life. But when the boy arrives back at the village, the unexpected kindness of strangers both revives him and rekindles his desire to live.

As well as celebrating the restorative effects of friendship, Heaven and Hell is also about the power of words. They can make us forget the world around us, Stefánsson suggests, but they also “have the might of giants and they can kill a god, they can save lives and destroy them.

Leaving aside its clichéd title (an obvious nod to Milton) Stefánsson’s early career as a poet is evident in this wistful fable. His lyrical prose, punctuated by the murmur of voices speaking from beyond the grave, is fluidly translated by Philip Roughton.

Words may have resulted in the death of his only friend, but by immersing himself in others’ stories, both real and imagined, the boy finds sanctuary and the ability to embrace, once again, the will to live.