Given that I live with an historian whose PhD we both suffered through, it was inevitable that I would read Icelandic writer Sigrún Pálsdóttir’s History. A Mess. That and it’s published by the excellent Peirene Press who have recently moved to my hometown. Pálsdóttir’s novella follows an unnamed narrator convinced that she’s discovered the identity of England’s first woman artist while transcribing the journal which forms the basis of her research. Five years later, things go disastrously wrong.
I suspect that his reaction would be sensible. And prudence is no use to me now. My problem calls for a radical solution.
When her scientist husband gets a job in Britain, our narrator goes with him taking up graduate study with a professor who points her at a seventeenth-century text whose interpretation will bolster his own career. Transcribing S. B.’s journal is a tedious process, each day beginning with the same sentence, but after almost a year our narrator comes across a single line on which her entire argument will hinge. Five years later, in the final stages of writing up her thesis and back in the archives, she discovers something that undermines her findings throwing her into a quandary so severe that she becomes ill. Back in Reykjavik, living in a rented apartment hastily arranged by her mother, our narrator begins to unravel. She’s done what she can to ward off disgrace when her thesis is published but cannot find it in herself to destroy the evidence. Driven to distraction, she eventually turns to her mother for help.
Fear is that little darkroom where misconceptions are developed.
Pálsdóttir’s book is a distinctly disorientating read. As our narrator becomes increasingly unhinged, she explores memories, hallucinates, has imagined conversations and frets about what she has done – we don’t find out what that is and how it has come about until the final section of the book. There are flashes of dark humour: her didactic mother, always to be consulted on matters of art, is almost a figure of fun yet she is the person who has wielded most influence on our narrator, the person she turns to in order to rescue her reputation. It’s not an easy read – Peirenes often aren’t – but I found it fascinating. Some descriptions of the withdrawal into a tiny, abstruse world which only the researcher understands rang loud bells for me. I’m relieved to say H emerged from his PhD unscarred but then he didn’t have to resort to our narrator’s tactics, at least not that I’m aware.
Peirene Press: Bath 9781908670755 173 pages Paperback