Review: Moonstone by Sjón

Icelandic author, poet, playwright and lyricist Sjón’s newest novel, “Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was,” is a powerful, slim work detailing one boy’s hurtling journey towards worldliness and independence, set against the backdrop of a nation set on the same staggering course.

It’s 1918 in Iceland, and after centuries of relative isolation, the sparsely populated sovereign nation can no longer keep the outside world at bay, much to the delight of 15-year-old Mani Steinn, a regular figure at the two cinemas in Reykjavik. Despite dropping out of school at the age of 12 due to illiteracy, Mani manages to eke out a living for himself and his elderly aunt by turning tricks in secret with other men, a dangerous practice that could result in deportation — or death.

Mani lives on the fringes of society, with no friends or social life to speak up, until the Spanish flu ravages the island nation. After surviving the illness, Mani is called out of the shadows and into the chaos of everyday life to assist one of just 10 doctors managing the 10,000 stricken townspeople, the three “overflowing hospitals, and one pharmacy, which is closed due to the illness of the druggist and all his dispensers.”

In this chaotic and heartbreaking time, Mani finds that his city “has, for the first time, assumed a form that reflects his inner life,” a city that, at once, needs him and rejects him.

While certainly a coming-of-age story, “Moonstone” is also a powerful snapshot of a poignant time in Icelandic history, when the outside world came bursting onto its shores, changing the nation forever. The slim novel moves quickly: Sjon’s sharp, poetic turns set the cold scene beautifully, fully capturing both the physical and emotional atmosphere for young Mani.

This poetic language can take over at times, particularly when Mani is struck with the flu. These fever visions come as a shock after so many narrative passages, though the sudden shift perfectly mimics the grip of the illness: fast, intense, and ethereal.

Both unusual and unusually moving, “Moonstone” is a remarkable achievement by one of the world’s leading artists.