Audur Ava Olafsdottir; trans. Brian FitzGibbon
The Greenhouse by Audur Ava Olafsdottir, translated by Brian FitzGibbon, is a slow-moving, quiet novel about a young man’s coming of age.
The narrative unfolds in the first-person point of view of Arnljótur Thórir (Lobbi), a young man in his early twenties who harbors a passion for gardening, especially roses. The passion was instilled in him by his now deceased mother with whom he shared a special bond. Not fully recovered from her unexpected death in a car accident, Lobbi sets off on a journey to restore a famous rose garden in a monastery in a remote village. The village is never identified by name, but we know it is in a foreign country since Lobbi struggles with learning the language. He leaves behind his father, his mentally challenged twin brother, and his baby daughter conceived with a woman he barely knows and with whom he once had a brief sexual encounter in his parent’s greenhouse.
Lobbi is very introspective, awkward, constantly questions himself and his behaviors, and is painfully self-conscious. Arriving at his destination, he immerses himself in restoring the monastery garden. He is at his most comfortable when surrounded by flowers and when his fingers tunnel in the soil. He barely has time to get acclimatized to his new surroundings and to village life when the mother of his child shows up with baby in hand. They move in with him temporarily, causing him to adjust his daily routine and outlook.
This is a very simple story about the healing power of care-giving and nurturing and about the peace that can come from the performance of simple, daily tasks. The once neglected monastery garden begins to flourish as a result of Lobbi’s efforts. The tenderness and care he showers on the garden extend to his daughter and her mother. Lobbi learns how to care for a totally dependent human being, deriving unexpected satisfaction from his new role as a father. He finds his path in life through working with the soil and through the care-giving and loving relationship he forges with his daughter.
The novel’s pace is slow. Some readers may find it too slow. The progression is subtle. Lobbi’s thoughts are somewhat repetitive; his rationalizations and self-doubt constant to the point of almost becoming tedious. But the novel’s charm lies in its depiction of the power of simple, nurturing tasks that effect an individual’s transformation and growth. From learning to cook meals to teaching his young daughter to walk, Lobbi grows into his new role as a father, a role he embraces with total commitment and from which he derives a sense of peace and fulfillment.