The swans on the pond, quite abruptly began to sing. It was a singing so loud they were almost screaming. The swans were screaming, screaming as if they saw the horror of the world.
Gudbjorg Thorisdottir has been hiding from the ghost of an ugly secret for most of her life. When she finally faces the truth of what happened throughout her childhood, the ghost floats away. Painting an evocative picture of her life in Iceland, this is the story of a little girl who didn’t know how unnatural it was to experience both heaven and hell in the same house.
In this profoundly affecting novel, we are told that “Stories heal the soul” and this story will definitely move yours…
Thank you so much to the wonderful Anne Cater for inviting me onto the tour and introducing me to this striking and memorable novel. I absolutely loved it.
Gudbjorg Thorisdottir is born into a happy Icelandic family in 1952, the second child of loving parents and followed by three further siblings. They live upstairs in Mörk, a painted corrugated iron house in Reykjavik that has been in the family for generations. Their home is dominated by Gudgjorg’s grandfather, who lives in the ground-floor apartment with her aunt, uncle and cousins.
Next door to Mörk is Little-Farm, the original old stone house with a coal cellar that Gudbjorg calls the Black Hole.Gudbjorg is frightened of the Black Hole because horrible things happen down there. She lives with a secret that she can’t tell anybody, because Grandpa says that her family will lose their home if she does. Grandpa buys her presents and gives her caramels in a lovely white jug, so that makes him a good person, doesn’t it?
On the wall above Grandpa’s bed is a black and white reproduction of a Madonna and Child that Gudbjorg likes to gaze upon, as it comforts her when Grandpa is making her feel bad. When she has grown into a teenager, and her family has moved away from Mörk, she realises that what has happened throughout her childhood is wrong. But still she takes the blame, and the shame of her experiences upon herself. After all, she seems to be the only girl in the family that this has happened to.
Gudbjorg emerges into womanhood accompanied by the ghost of Grandpa’s abuse. Every time she wants to say anything, the ghost tightens its hand over her mouth and she remains dumb. It’s not until she takes a new job as Principle of a Reykjavik primary school that she accepts she needs to get help.It’s Gudbjorg’s daughter, Thora Karitas Arnadottir, who has taken her mother’s true story and brought it out into the light. Weaving together fact, fiction and poetic prose, her resulting testament bears all the magic of a fairy tale.
A fairy tale incorporating endurance and survival, violence and tenderness and the heroism of a character who refuses to be crushed by the monster at the bottom of the Black Hole. Despite the darkness at the heart of Gudbjorg’s story, Thora Karitas has created a compelling narrative nonfiction account of life in Iceland from the time of her great-great-grandparents, right into the present.
A story full of rural charm and ancestral memories, often encapsulated in the familial objects Gudbjorg has collected around her – each opening a window into the past and placing us in a particular moment – bringing back into sharp focus members of her family and ways of life that have long passed.
This is a book that will make you think hard, make you reflect on things you might never have contemplated before and make you coma back to it to re-read certain parts so you can drink in their beauty, whilst at the same time be shocked and affected by some of its troubling and darker passages.
And the Swans Began to Sing tells the moving and enduring story of Thora’s mother Gudbjorg, and her years of abuse from her own grandfather. Its closed world of secrets and lies are painstakingly drawn in such a way as to bring them to life right before our eyes. The curtains are drawn, throwing light on this hidden period in her life and allowing us to see the truth after so many years of it being a dark secret.
This beautiful book – for beautiful it most definitely is, despite its sometimes harrowing subject matter – is so much more than a story about abuse, it is much more than a ‘misery memoir’ – it’s a story about the small moments within a family that define them as a family; a story about darkness transfigured into light and most of all a story about the other side and what it means to ‘come through the fire’ of an experience like this and survive it.
The book gives a real insight into the upbringing she had in this small rural community which definitely added a counterpoint to the darker elements of the story. If you are Scottish like me and enjoyed Sunset Sing by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, you’ll have some idea of this blending of the personal with the atmosphere of community and the darkness and bleak aspects with the rhythmic and soothing sense of the changes in nature that come with the seasons and the small movements of pleasure and kindness in a small rural community.
This book might not be for everyone, owing to the nature of its content, but please be reassured that although it does not skirt around the subject or diminish the horror of its impact, the abuse itself is handled with sensitivity and is certainly far from sensationalised during the novel. The story is about the abuse, about life through its prism and its aftermath too. There is much to think about here and its blending of the beautiful and the horror is deftly done, leading to a reading experience like no other. It is very hard to put into words – the closest I can come to is that this book holds you in its spell and does not release you until long after you’ve finished reading it.
And the Swans Began to Sing is a book that you won’t forget easily. A beautifully wrought piece of prose that glimmers with the hope of the future even as it looks back on the hurt and pain of the past. It is a redemptive read that will leave you feeling like you see the world around you with new eyes and a read that will keep coming back to you at the quieter moments of the days as your thoughts drift, some of the moments of this book will creep back into your consciousness and make you appreciate the small moments in your day, the positive relationships that you have and the power of love to change things forever. It looks absolutely stunning in my #OnTheShelfie too
Buy yourself a copy of this challenging and beautiful read here
Writer On The Shelf
Thora Karitas Arnadottir (b. 1979) studied drama in the UK, and is a producer as well as appearing on stage and television.
And the Swans Began to Sing is her first published book; her mother’s story, and formed the final dissertation for her MA in Creative Writing.
The book was nominated for the Icelandic Women’s Literary prize Fjoruverdlaunin in 2016.