August 25, 2015


With its beautiful cover and terse writing style, THE STARS SEEM SO FAR AWAY is just the right book for August. Its tales of a slowly drying and warming world, and heading North to find water and life all seem supremely important and eerily real just now... Margrét Helgadóttir is a Norwegian-Icelandic writer whose imaginative linked short story collection hits just the right note of loss and longing. It's a story of isolation and loneliness, of losing and finding, connection and disconnection in a post-apocalyptic landscape - and ultimately, of losing the final connection to our planet.

Summary:Aida and Zaki, Nora, Bjørg, and Simik are all survivors in various ways. They are also all Northern people whose ancestors are Icelanders, Norwegians, and possibly Innuit peoples. After the melting of the polar ice caps, Earth is now a barren waste, and those choosing to stay behind - or those who were left behind - from immigration on the colony ships now face plague and disease, hostility and foods grown in artificial soil. There seems to be no animal life, no sea life, and very few plants or trees. People are starving, and all heading north, to what they hope is a "Green Land," in hopes of preserving life.

Simik is fortunate. He has a place with his people, and a purpose. Though he's told that the world has changed since the animals are gone, and there is no more wisdom, he's finding traces of a better world in all kinds of lost places. Aida and Zaki are raised in privilege, when there were still resources held in the hands of a few. Their mother, blindly privileged, watered her roses while parched refugees pressed their faces through the fence. When their mother dies, their father takes them away from the cities. Zaki, restless and anxious and seemingly angry all the time, drifts away, leaving Aida clinging to her father. When he develops the plague, he tells her to leave - and she's left with nothing. Learning to make her way - and find her courage - is her survival story. Nora has seen people turn to animals one time too many. But though she travels with her rifle loaded, she is still able to open her hands - and her heart - to other castaways. There is still safety - and maybe purpose - in numbers. Bjørg lives in the worst sort of isolation, because every human she meets, she has to kill. There is no one to give her further instructions - the Commander is gone, and so is her father - but she has her orders. But when Simik arrives, injured, on her island, she can't bring herself to let her isbos - her polar bears - attack. She's baffled by this - frightened and angry - but as much as she craves change, it terrifies her. And when Simik shows her how much her world has truly changed, she has to accept it - and the upheaval it cases her entire world.

These five characters have stories which begin on different ends of the world, and then end up together. It's sometimes surreal and sometimes shocking, but mostly, this weaving-together works.

Peaks: Probably my favorite moments in this collection is when danger is narrowly averted. Pushing back from an island filled with plump-cheeked women and children, the moment when a guest is invited aboard and given meat and drink - or when a knife is kept carefully behind one's back - those moments of high tension are sketched in plain words, leaving the reader space to fill in the blanks. While it's hard to narrow down one story in particular that I liked the best, the pathos of The Whale in Nuuk is one that stuck with me -- the horrible spectre of cages and fences and the last wild animal -- which may have been a fake. The story ends in a way that is both sad and heartening. The wild things are gone -- maybe -- but the humans are going, too. Maybe the Earth will repopulate itself. Maybe they'll find strange new wildlings. But the whales and the other animals will not be forgotten.

Valleys: I enjoyed this collection thoroughly, but I had questions about the apocalypse that remained unanswered. I wondered how ALL the sea life and fruit and veg could have died off -- it's hard for me to fathom, because the world is wide. I also wished for more detail about the governmental structure - and wondered how various government programs - especially ones that takes a lot of money and a lot of tech - survive into the future. How, when people are starving refugees, do people train for that future? Who would be fit to go, from a planet where there was disease? In this present time, we explore the idea of other worlds as a means of escape, but sending only a few away - what is the purpose? To open trade? To allow a lucky few a way out? Escape is an inherently hopeful conclusion to these often cold and desperate tales, and I was intrigued by the author's offering this out to readers and characters alike. I wanted more explanation.

Conclusion: This very literary collection feels like something I might have read for an English class and felt lucky to get away with it. Though not exactly "young adult" in feel, the young protagonists bring an innocence and optimism into some pretty dire spaces, and keep the stories moving in the direction of hope and connection.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the author, in hopes of a review. You can find THE STARS SEEM SO FAR AWAY by Margrét Helgadóttir at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

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