It's always difficult to make up reading lists for book discussion groups. You want to have a certain balance, include a few books that will challenge the reader plus others that are simply a pleasure to read. And then, if you're working with libraries, you usually have to make sure there are enough copies for everyone to be able to read it.
The Greenhouse by Ava Audur Olafsdottír was one I put on the lists for my three English groups this year, having done it previously for my French groups. Unfortunately, though, it hasn't made a big enough splash in the English-speaking world for there to be enough copies in libraries around here for the groups to read it.
What a shame! This is a book that should have a wide audience. A coming of age story by an Icelandic writer, it was a best seller in Europe, but was only tardily published in English by Amazon.com. The big on-line book seller may have been looking for another Scandnavian blockbuster like the Kurt Wallendar mysteries or the Millenium Trilogy. What they got is something quite different, but I think more interesting.
Lobbi is 22 years old, just finished with a stint on a fishing boat, and ready to follow his dream which is to grow roses. He has an unpaid job restoring a medieval rose garden waiting for him in an unamed southern country, and as the book opens he sets out, full of angst and unfocussed lust and not quite sure what lies before him. So far it sounds like a slacker's excellent adventure, but things are more interesting and complicated than that. He also has a six month old daughter, the fruit of a 20 minute tryst with a friend of a friend whose picture he shows to all the young women he's attracted to. The child's mother wants to continue her studies and tracks him down in his mountain top garden, saying, in effect, 'okay, it's your turn to look after the baby.'
By the end of the book, he's fallen in love with the mother of his child, restored the garden and shown the monks who had let it go to ruin the beauty of nature. The ending isn't a feel-good one, though, since he's left with the child and we don't know what will happen next.
Furthermore, the novel can be read on many other levels: as a feminist view of the diety, as a reworking of many myths, and as a comment on the relevance of conventional religion (Lobbi has a monk as a mentor who never quotes scripture but always has advice taken from old films.)
If this sounds interesting, please suggest it to your library: it would be great to discuss it with my bookies some other season.
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About the reviewer
Mary Soderstrom is a Montreal-based writer of fiction and non-fiction. Her new collection of short stories, Desire Lines: Stories of Love and Geography, will be published by Oberon Press in November, … more