The story of a woman trapped in a predestined life of conventions and societal expectations is as old as the world itself. And so is a woman artist who has to forge her right to express herself artistically which in turn would allow her to live her life fully. Does it get better these days? There are more opportunities but can the society let go of what women are supposed to contribute, to be free and creative? Karitas Jónsdóttir is on the difficult path surrounded by the harsh reality of existence in the brutal Nordic climate and the constant fight to find money and food, in the first half of 20th century in a country where art was appreciated yet not easy to reach for all, when the backbreaking physical labour was essentially the only way to stay alive. Karitas lived in a fishing village and in the capital of Denmark, got used to the modern technology and went back to a turf hut. So much of the ancient and the new mixed together!
In one of her interviews Kristín Marja Baldursdóttir said that equal rights were at the top of her mind when she began writing novels. That theme forms basis of her rich and complex novel Karitas Untiled / Karitas án titils (first published in 2004) and makes a portrait of a young untraditional artist all the more powerful and poignant. However, Iceland is a character in its own right, with the emotionally sensitive portrayal of the nature, landscape, seasons, and fauna and flora. And people. These elements influence Karitas’ first shy encounters with painting, trying to catch shapes and contrasts, experimenting with light and shade. They are the very first step in the process of learning which was noticed by a rich lady who decided to give some drawing lessons to Karitas and then send her to Copenhagen to study for five years. The classic photographic reflection of the world on paper and canvas was the way to catch attention of some of the art connoisseurs yet Karitas longed for the more modern abstract ways to create, to capture emotions, to thrive. But being an artist had to wait as Karitas’ responsibilities took over. Marriage, children, many years without her husband.
‘To be able to think clearly, you need a lot of light’. Baldursdóttir weaves the threads of various experiences to understand the yearning of an artist and to respect women who had lived through the hardship: ‘What an extraordinary woman your mother is. He loses her husband at sea and picks up and leaves with her six children in order to provide them with an education. Circumnavigates the country with them in the dark hold of ship but makes it to her destination, washes fish, knits woolen clothing, and manages to get all of her children into school. She never lost sight of her goal, that woman. They have always been known for their toughness, those people in the Westfjords. Though they’ve always dabbed in black magic, of course.’ Men feature in the book; the fisherman and the sailors, the farm workers and the pillars of society that still has a long way to go in terms of emancipation, introduction of modern technology and personal freedom. But the motion of strong-willed women is what pushes some of the progress and development, which includes personal growth and personal motivation to decide. ‘Black magic’ might be a loose term but nevertheless it encompasses ancient Icelandic traditions and beliefs. Hidden people or elves appear to guide and protect. A ghost helps to deal with trauma. The nature is full of hidden secrets.
The solemn majestic beauty of the Icelandic landscape adds to the literary magnificence of the novel, and often stops you in tracks when reading. The same happened to Karitas who had to endure death and loss, the unknown and the uncertainty. She longed for internal chaos to be a better painter, hoping for understanding and recognition. Yet this has been a long painful process which involved her personal turmoil.
I feel that the novel’s apparent abrupt and unexpected ending makes perfect sense in the context of global historical events. It encompasses wealth of emotions and some conflicting decisions. Karitas’ life on the book pages starts in 1915 with WWI’s distant echoes in Iceland, and concludes just after Germany invaded Poland, marking the beginning in of WWII. We know that in the 1940’s war came much closer to this small nation. We are not privy to Karitas considering her future, yet I think it might be fair to say that she would focus on truly expressing herself as a painter. And I wish her all the luck.
Growing up on a farm in early twentieth-century rural Iceland, Karitas Jónsdóttir, one of six siblings, yearns for a new life. An artist, Karitas has a powerful calling and is determined to never let go of her true being, one unsuited for the conventional. But she is powerless against the fateful turns of real life and all its expectations of women. Pulled back time and again by design and by chance to the Icelandic countryside – as dutiful daughter, loving mother, and fisherman’s wife – she struggles to thrive, to be what she was meant to be.
The author Kristín Marja Baldursdóttir might not be so well known in the UK but is one of Iceland’s most acclaimed writers and the internationally bestselling author of numerous novels, including Karitas Untitled, nominated for a Nordic Council Literature Prize; Street of the Mothers; Chaos on Canvas; and Seagull’s Laughter, which was adapted for the stage and also into an critically acclaimed film. She received her degree in 1991 from the University of Iceland, studied in Germany and Denmark, and has also worked as a teacher and a journalist. Among Kristín Marja’s many honours are the Knight’s Cross of the Icelandic Order of the Falcon for her achievements in writing and her contributions to Icelandic literature, the Jónas Hallgrímsson Prize, and the Fjöruverðlaun Women’s Literature Prize. She lives in Reykjavík.
The award-winning translator Philip Roughton worked on many of Iceland’s best-known authors, including Nobel laureate Halldór Laxness, Jón Kalman Stefánsson, Þórarinn Eldjárn, Bergsveinn Birgisson, and Steinunn Sigurðardóttir.
Huge thanks to FMcM Associates for the chance to read this thought-provoking novel, and to share my loose thoughts for the blog tour. You can now purchase Karitas Untitled – Bookshop.org.uk Karitas Untitled – Amazon.