Book review: ‘Hotel Silence’ by Audur Ava Olafsdottir

Laurie Hertzel
Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

Jónas Ebeneser has decided to end his life. He is nearly 50, divorced, and his ex-wife has told him that Gudrún Waterlily, their grown daughter, is not his. Other than his mother, who is rapidly declining into dementia, he is alone in a flat, colorless world. “The shortest route to the old folks’ home is through the graveyard,” he muses, and this is the kind of thing that he thinks a lot. It’s not that he has nothing to live for; his thoughtful neighbor, Svanur, looks out for him, and Jónas himself is pretty handy with a hammer and wrench. But, “Will the world miss me? No,” he tells himself. “Will the world be any poorer without me? No.”

He wants to spare Gudrún the task of finding his body, so Jónas packs up his toolbox and one change of clothes (there’s no point in more) and heads off. He ends up in an unnamed country far away, a bleak, war-torn place that has seen violence, destruction and death. No one will notice another dead man there, he thinks.

Ah, but there are people wherever you go, and almost against his will, he is drawn into these lives, using his tools to repair the hotel he checks into, room by room.

Ólafsdóttir’s prose, eloquently translated from the Icelandic by Brian FitzGibbon, is just flat enough to give this quiet novel the feel of a fable. In short sentences and minimal dialogue, she tells the story of a man’s rebirth. The book rises above the obvious metaphor (handyman can fix everything but himself) and the clearly signaled ending, moving naturally and powerfully from despair to hope.

Hotel Silence

by Audur Ava Ólafsdóttir, Black Cat (214 pages, $16)