This seemed like it was pretty expensive for a 2-hour listen, but I’ve read a couple of Sjön’s prior works and they are exquisite (“From the Mouth of the Whale” and “The Blue Fox”) So okay – I went for it.
Imagine Iceland circa 1918 and a teenage boy who has to earn his living as a male prostitute. The story opens with young Mani Steinn graphically involved in his general occupation, then goes into his yearning for a woman, Sóla G, after which it turns to a bizarre notion of seeing his own head in a casket. It’s also about music, motorcycles, movies and the Spanish flu and has a twist at the end which is truly unforgettable.
Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was
by Sjön (Iceland)
2016 / 160 pages
read by Vikas Adam 2h 6m
Rating: 8.7 / historical fiction
(warning – a gay child prostitute is the main character)
“The Boy” of the title is Mani, a parentless soul who lives with his great-grandmother and her sister in Reykjavík, Iceland. At age 15 or 16 he loves movies and what he learns about the world from them. Although silent and with a very dark atmosphere, Mani watches movies obsessively at two theaters. His favorite movie is the 17-hour long “The Vampires” by Louis Feuillade.
(Is this like the books about girls who read too much fiction and it ends up messing with their real lives? – I suspect there’s a connection – see Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen or a few others. But where those are somewhat comic, there is not one humorous line in Moonstone.)
But these movies, grim as they are, are sometimes preferable to what he learns in his real world of 1918 – about his customers and about the plague of deaths from the flu epidemic brought by seamen fighting the Great War in Europe which rages on. And then there’s the the volcano, Katla, which spewed more fire and smoke that same year.
One night “the boy” accepts a customer and says his name is Mani Steinn which the foreigner pronounces as “Moonstone.”
At the movies Mani meets a girl who looks just like his favorite actress (Irma Vep of The Vampires) and the two of them are friends although she’s from the upper class and he’s from the very lowest of the low. All classes can go to the movies and it seems to like the movies are open 24/7 and Mani can go almost any time. They’re black and white, and silent. His movie life and his real life get enmeshed. Mani is a true outsider – an outsider of outsiders. Yet he survives in his own fashion – and so does Iceland in getting its independence from Denmark that same year, 1918.
The narrative is loose, dreamy, very grim and somewhat fantastical at times. It is beautifully written with even some poetry included from time to time – by Sjön. But it’s really hard to stay focused on the book – which is possibly explained at the end. Brilliant.
The ending is a knockout going from the hellish streets of Reykjavík to much much later and far away and back again, presenting a cycle in a way. And in the turning we’ve forgotten all about Mani/ Moonstone – the boy who wasn’t.
I’m a bit hesitant about recommending this one because it has some really graphic homosexual scenes in it but if you think you can get past that, it’s worth it.