Reply to a Letter from Helga

March’s issue of the Grapevine featured a review of a wonderful book by yours truly (I wrote the review, that is, not the wonderful book), which is now available online. The book, Reply to a Letter From Helga, was written by Bergsveinn Birgisson, translated by Philip Roughton, and AmazonCrossing published the translation in January. It’s an epistolary novel, a love letter written by a man in his old age to the woman he loved in his youth. It is also a love letter to a way of life, a difficult and sometimes isolated way of life, farming in the country, but one in which relationships with nature and animals are just as important and often, just as fulfilling, as those that someone has with other people.

It isn’t always an easy book, but it is a very moving one. The writing is spare and precise, the relationships painted are complex, and there are a few scenes which I think will stay with me for a very long time.

Some external links of interest:

The Fabulous Iceland website has a short interview with the author online, here.

The Chicago Tribune published a very positive review of the book by Beth Kephart, which has more plot details and quotes and comes at the book from a bit of a different angle than I did.

An author bio is here on the website.

Below is the start of my own review, you can see the full piece on the Grapevine website, here.

A frank and poetic meditation on nature, relationships, and the choices that define us, Bergsveinn Birgisson’s Reply To A Letter From Helga paints an unflinching portrait of Bjarni, an elderly man on the verge of “the Great Relocation congenital to all men” who is ready to finally face the defining decision of his life and respond to a letter left unanswered for so many years.

When, in his youth, his lover Helga offered him the chance to follow her to a new life in Reykjavík, Bjarni chose instead to remain on the farm which had been in his family for generations, choosing his love for the land over romantic love and companionship. This decision was, and remains, a fraught and painful one for him. Even so, he maintains a clear sense of pride throughout the novel, a strength of purpose which separates his story from more conventional narratives of love lost. “I thought of what kind of person I would become in Reykjavík,” Bjarni writes.

Could I love you…under such circumstances? Is it so certain, Helga, that everything would have been fine for us? I would have dug a ditch for you and filled it back up again, the same ditch all my life…But abandon myself, the countryside and farming, which were who I am; that I couldn’t do.”




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