Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Children in Reindeer Woods by Kristín Ómarsdóttir

"The problem with war is that one doesn't know what to do with the children."
(p. 70)

     Billie is 11 years old and living in a temporary children's home in an unnamed, timeless, war-torn country.  One day, a group of soldiers appear at the farmhouse, altercations ensue, and everyone ends up dead except for Rafael, a soldier, and Billie, who was hiding in the bushes during the dispute.  When Rafael finishes burying his fellow soldiers and the other inhabitants of the farmhouse, Billie emerges and they begin a strange relationship.  She understands that she is a sort of war prisoner as Rafael is constantly waving his gun around and shouting threats, but then Rafael abandons his soldier's attire in exchange for overalls and vows that he and Billie shall forget about war and tend to the land! 

     Billie often refers to herself as "retarded," but she understands much more than she realizes.  This is evident through the conversations she enacts with her dolls.  Their dialogue is childlike and imaginative, but also rippling with undercurrents of violence and trauma.  She is also haunted by memories of her father, who we are told is a puppet from another planet, and her mother, a doctor.  Sometimes Billie's dolls speak as her parents, sometimes they speak as Rafael, and sometimes they speak as the previous inhabitants of the farmhouse.  In fact, much of Billie's time is spent giving voices to those who are either dead or absent from the story.

     Every now and then, unexpected visitors will appear on the property, but they all seem to disappear as quickly as they arrived.  Eventually Billie becomes more brazen with Rafael, asking him outright if he is murdering their visitors.  His answers are vague and inconsistent.  As the story progresses, Billie's perceptions become less reliable and the dolls' conversations become increasingly absurd - drifting between innocence and knowing - until she is forced to make a choice between the two.

     Sometimes Children in Reindeer Woods is hilarious in a "kids say the darndest things" sort of way, but then you remember Billie's horrifying situation and the humor turns dark and grim.  Ómarsdóttir's novel is a fascinating and troubling juxtaposition of violence and innocence, and Billie has no idea that she's at the point of convergence.

     Children in Reindeer Woods was published in Iceland in 2004, and this is the first English translation (April 17, 2012).  I don't know much about the Icelandic language, but it seems incredibly complex, so I applaud the novel's English translator, Lytton Smith.  The tone and dialogue often make you feel like you're reading a strange fairy tale or fable, which can be quite unnerving considering the subject matter - but this just serves as a reminder of how closely trauma and violence can interact with innocence and purity.

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