Sunday, 4 January 2015

Snorri & Frosti, by Ben Myers – Book Review

I have read this novella now five times over the past year or so, and feel like I could read it many more without growing tired, without growing bored. That’s not because it’s short, quick-reading, and I’ve got nothing else on my urgent ‘To-read’ list. Quite the opposite – I’ve re-read it so often already despite the fact there’s so much else I want to get through. 

It is addictive, compulsive, habit-forming, in the best sense. Like fresh coffee, or country walks. It feels comfortable on repeated readings, though it has lost none of its challenging qualities, nor its ability to surprise or amuse. There's a folk album quality to it. As with an album, I even feel that I've taken something new from it each time; there are different sections that appeal more, that have offered more when I’ve been caught up in different moods.

Indeed, reading it again just now, I found this aspect of the book extremely fitting to its themes – change weighed against continuity, daily life weighed against the spectre of death –   and to the way Ben Myers has allowed the narrative to develop, giving himself space to balance these themes and submerge them within the delicate, subtle study of the two eponymous brothers, creating a sense of tension, flux and conflict, even as the sparse setting and the steady pace lends the work a feeling of compelling, almost unbreakable calm.   

The story of a day in the life of these two brothers is relayed, with the exception of a brief intro, by way of the dialogue between the two. In the way the simple, direct language fits together, and the lines spark off each other to generate moments of bittersweet, quite often dark humour, there’s a bit of Beckett about it, and a bit of Cormac McCarthy (think The Sunset Limited), too. Yet, if these inspirations were indeed there for Myers, they are there as an undertone, as a foundation only. He crafts something that feels new and original from the seemingly traditional, basic ingredients he starts with.

It is tempting to simply lavish praise on his concrete but unobtrusive writing style, and the way he’s constructed the piece; to say that were it not for the way he tells it, this tale could run the risk of feeling old-hat and outmoded. After all, this day in the life can be roughly boiled down to a rather dull-sounding pattern of waking up, drinking coffee, talking about snow, chopping wood, talking about food, chopping more wood, eating food, and then going to bed. Over which hangs the threat of the brothers being kicked off their land by a faceless construction conglomerate.

Yet, the repetitive nature of this day, within the context of the rest of the protagonists’ lives, is the backbone of the story. It is crucial to its ultimate meaning, and to why that story works so well here. In Myer’s hands, what could have been off-puttingly dour kitchen-sink realism transplanted to an unnamed valley in Scandinavia, becomes an affecting meditation on the ways in which consistency and routine can become intrinsic to a person’s survival. And, because of this, I came to care about the survival of these characters – there has been a point, earlier and earlier, in each reading where the characters have simply taken over, and any admiration for the simplicity of form gets lost, as it should, in the mix.

Their discussions of coffee and snow and food and the threat posed by the aforementioned faceless construction conglomerate are fascinating, funny, and frequently insightful. There are sections that I’d like to quote here by way of demonstration, but for those who haven’t read it, I don’t want to spoil the surprises.

I may have said too much already – though, as mentioned earlier, here is a book where it is more important how something happens than it is what happens.

Which is fortunate because, as also stated above, it is simple and sparse in terms of plot. Yet, like the meals the book’s titular brothers describe to each other, it feels wholesome and hearty with it. Though it describes a place of desolate, isolated, seemingly unending cold, it evokes as well a sense that change and renewal abound constantly, beneath the beneficial routines, beneath the blanket of snow. Despite that snow, it brings with it a warming sensation. It rekindles a vitality in me which, particularly under recent grey skies, it’s too easy to worry I’ve lost.

That is, it reminds me that no matter how little you feel like you have, and how monotonous your days may seem, there is always something to lose. And it is worth taking the time to appreciate that thing – life – as fully as you’re able, in whichever fashion you prefer, because, afterwards, it will only and always be too late.

I’ve read this novella so often already, then, because I don’t think you can ask too much more of a story than that. 

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