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From the Mouth of the Whale by Sjón
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From the Mouth of the Whale (2008)

by Sjón (Author)

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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Showing 1-5 of 24 (next | show all)
A pretty solid novel which - after not being particularly impressed by The Blue Fox and The Whispering Muse - gave me some understanding of all the fuss about Sjón.

It's also a satisfying read for the early modern European history buff, given that in English we don't hear much about seventeenth-century Iceland and Denmark without looking for it. From the Mouth of the Whale is based on the life-story of Icelandic autodidact Jón the Learned, here renamed Jónas, who, like many famous thinkers of his era, dabbled in a mixture of what we'd now call science and magic, and provoked the wrath of the church. (There are a few metafictional hints that Sjón feels Jón(as) and his wife to have been his intellectual ancestors.) During the course of his adventures Jónas travels to Copenhagen and works with the somewhat better-known polymath Ole Worm. Lest this sound like a book about men in doublets sitting around talking, there's more adventure than you find in the average litfic novel, intellectual pranks involving narwhal horns, and a moving account of life in a harsh landscape both physical and ideological.

It was disappointing not to hear more about Jónas's wife Sigga, an equally interesting character who began as a farmer's daughter with a natural genius for maths and astronomy, mostly self-taught following a few basic lessons from a local vicar. Decades later, after the deaths of several of their children, little or no opportunity to develop her own gifts, and following her husband around on various household moves prompted by rumours and persecution, she is a depressed, angry woman who says little more than “That's the sort of nonsense that got us here in the first place”. Given the choice to use narrative shifts between first and third person, and switches from stream-of-consciousness to standard storytelling, it's a shame Sjón didn't also include a section narrated by Sigga. As it stood, with the narrative always concentrating on Jónas, these shifts were the book's greatest weakness - most were pointless and detracted from the flow of an otherwise interesting story. ( )
  antonomasia | May 31, 2014 |
This is a difficult read. But has such pockets of loveliness, of the word kind and otherwise. ( )
  beckydj | Mar 3, 2014 |
Abandoned at page 51: I just don't care how it turns out. ( )
  Heduanna | Dec 1, 2013 |
An occasionally interesting but often a bit frustrating read. It could've been more than it was - but I can see why it garnered so much praise. There is something undoubtedly magical here... but not magical enough. The magic of the story and of the writing is intermittent for me and I don't see what there is to recommend the book. It's got great moments, great stories - but as a whole, it's a little frustrating in the bad way.

More thoughts of this kind at RB: http://wp.me/pGVzJ-kX ( )
  drewsof | Jul 9, 2013 |
Just not my cup of tea... ( )
  digitalmaven | Jun 17, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 24 (next | show all)
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
SjónAuthorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Cribb, VictoriaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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'Soon it seemed to him that the stars had become men,
the men stars, the stones beasts,
the clouds plants...'
Novalis, The Novices of Sais
Dedication
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PRELUDE: I was on my way home from the hunt.
A medium-sized fellow ... Beady brown eyes set close to his beak within pale surrounds ... The itself quite long, thick and powerful, with a slight downward curve at the end, dark in colour but lighter at the top.
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Book description
The year is 1635. Iceland is a world darkened by superstition, poverty, and cruelty. Men of science marvel over a unicorn's horn, poor folk worship the Virgin in secret, and both books and men are burnt.

Jonas Palmason, a poet and self-taught healer, has been condemned to exile for heretical conduct, having fallen foul of the local magistrate. Banished to a barren island, Jonas recalls his gift for curing "female maladies," his exorcism of a walking corpse on the remote Snjafjoll coast, the frenzied massacre of innocent Basque whalers at the hands of local villagers, and the deaths of three of his children. From the Mouth of the Whale is a magical evocation of an enlightened mind and a vanished age.
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"In the chilling aftermath of Iceland's Lutheran Reformation in 1635, Jonas Palmason - a poet, naturalist and self-taught healer - has been condemned to exile for heretical conduct. Sitting on a barren island, he contemplates his life in a country that has become gripped by feverish superstition and the cruelty of poverty. He recalls his gift for curing 'female maladies', his exorcism of a walking corpse in the remote county of Snaefjallastrond, the frenzied massacre of innocent Basque whalers at the hands of local villagers and the death of two of his children while his family were on the run. When his exile is suddenly revoked, Jonas finds himself swallowed and spewed from the mouth of a north whale, back onto the mainland. There he returns to the arms of his son and ends his days writing books of poetry and legend. Based on the historical figure Jon Gudmundsson, From the Mouth of the Whale is a magical evocation of an enlightened mind and a vanished age."--bookdepository.com… (more)

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