Icelandic writer Sjón, born Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson, has been a force in his country’s music, art and literary scene since the ‘70s. He has been a singer in the seminal band the Sugarcubes (which launched the career of another Icelandic cultural giant), a poet, translator and lyricist. In the United States, Sjón’s fiction gains popularity with each release. American audiences were first introduced to his surreal, fairy-like prose with the release of The Blue Fox, From the Mouth of the Whale and The Whispering Muse in 2013. With Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was, stateside readers have a new, arresting work from this influential Icelandic author.

At the tail end of the Great War and the beginning of 1918 Spanish flu epidemic that eventually ravaged the globe, we meet Máni Steinn. Steinn is a young, queer social outcast who drifts through town as an observer. An obsessive cinephile, he is particularly taken with Louis Feuillade’s ten part, seven-hour film Les Vampires and its female lead Irma Vep, whose figure becomes inexorably combined with Steinn’s love obsession Sóla G–.

As the book unfolds through short chapters, the epidemic finally descends upon on the town. Death is everywhere, and the solemn city becomes a totem for quiet suffering. As Iceland begins to separate itself from historical Danish rule, the distance between Steinn and the rest of the city becomes more pronounced. His alienation becomes the alienation of an entire nation. The war seems to hardly figure into the minds of the Icelanders, and the narrative feels pointedly apart from any European tradition. Steinn’s disinterest in the news of the world is a function of national alienation, and his further alienation as young queer boy in a society that doesn’t accept him.

Stylistically, Moonstone is a pure poet’s novel, at times light and humorous but always with a dark undercurrent of melancholy. The chapters feel like prose poems, with Sjón’s eye for beauty and detail and a richly imagined introverted perspective. Each moment is penetrated by every element before or after it in a way that makes the novel feel like a living, breathing entity. From the start, even before the story develops and forms into a conscious narrative, Sjón’s lyricism is impressive. Each scene is immaculately painted, and his narrative style, though sparse and punctuated by short sentences, speaks volumes in its controlled beauty and straightforward diction.

Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was is an intensely beautiful and dark work. Death and destruction hover over the story of a boy and a nation, whose trials from a century ago seem particularly relevant today. It’s a distinctly Icelandic work, the bleak landscape reflected in characters that feel like hopeless automatons fumbling through the world and its troubles. One wonders whether anyone has ever been happy there. Thanks to Sjón’s beguiling prose and magnetic storytelling, Moonstone is hard to put down and impossible to forget.

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