Far Afield by Susanna Kaysen
Vintage - General Fiction
"Can I try the dryler?"
"No. No." Eyvinder grabbed it and held it to his breast. "Jonathan, I must make a confession." He grinned. "This is really a stone I painted to resemble a dryler. It's very good, no? I have done a beautiful job making it into a dryler. I wanted to give you a full Faroese meal in all its typicality, Anna and I both wanted this. But Anna cannot make dryler. Nobody can make them anymore. We've forgotten how, because they are so stinking bad to eat. They are just like rocks to eat. So, I decided,why not take a rock and make it into a dryler? It's conceptive art, isn't it?"
"Conceptual," said Jonathan.
--from p. 29 of Far Afield
Then he heard the hum. Vibrating in consonance with one of the tones of the ocean's churning, it slid in and out of perceptibility in the way that the landscape disappeared in the mist. But by stilling his breath and, to some degree, his jumping pulse, Jonathan was able to pick it out, the low continuo in the cantata of sea and wind.
He would take refuge in a homey understanding of Faroese ways only to be slapped back to an uncomfortable position as an American by some terrible smell: uncomfortable because he could no more now imagine himself standing at an oak door with a brass knocker, wearing a tie and holding a bottle of Médoc, than he could picture eating rotten meat. He was floating around in cultural hyperspace; nothing felt right.
Jonathan Brand has chosen the Faroe Islands in the North Atlantic to do his field work in anthropology. A Harvard graduate student, he's been discouraged from going to the Faroes. The natives are hardly primitive, after all. But, undaunted, Jonathan learns the language and forges ahead with his plan to spend a year in the islands, studying the local customs and traditions, learning about the people and their lifestyle.
His journey begins badly. Lost luggage, terrible weather and cuisine that consists mostly of rotted fish and other dubious meats leave him feeling uncertain about his decision. But, with the encouragement of his native Faroese friend Eyvinder he begins his year in Skopun, on the island of Sandoy, in a rented house. Through experience, hard work and willingness to work at belonging, Jonathan quickly makes friends and finds his place. But, it's not a place he can remain, forever.
What I loved about Far Afield:
Okay, warning time: gushing is imminent. Far Afield is so skillfully crafted, beautifully written and insightful that I can already tell you it's got a pre-built slot in my top reads for 2011. Susanna Kaysen's writing has a depth I haven't encountered for a while and it really blew me away. You not only get such a well-defined sense of place that you feel the cold and the wind, smell the fishy ocean tang and hear the sheep, but also feel as if you come away from the book with a sense that you might just understand this unique island culture. But, you probably won't want to fly there to sample the food.
Far Afield is character-driven and mostly internal. You're firmly planted in Jonathan's point of view and Jonathan is emotionally complex, if not a bit of a wreck. At some point during his year in the Faroes, Jonathan realizes he has been disconnected from his own reality, that he's had some mild delusion that the smarter, better-spoken, more self-assured Jonathan of his imagination would someday step forward and take over.
I would call Kaysen's writing psychologically astute. She certainly did take my breath away; I'll say that much. It's particularly worth noting that Jonathan is at times grandly flawed and in many ways unlikable, yet it's easy to get invested in his life and care about him. I think perhaps that's because he's such a mensch. He screws up a lot but in spite of being a Harvard grad student, born of intellectual parents, he doesn't think highly of himself; in fact, he's hugely critical and aware of his own flaws. In his interactions with people, he treats most of them with such great respect that it's no stretch to believe he could develop friendships, even with people with whom communication is sketchy and whose differences in lifestyle compared to his own are enormous.
There are also some very funny moments, particularly any time Jonathan is around Eyvinder, who is quite a character. After he feeds Jonathan traditional foods on his first visit, Eyvinder tells Jonathan he should return to eat, another time:
"Jonathan. Jonathan. You must not take offense because I have very black ideas. It's my Italian side. You are our friend. You are not from the CIA. I am just spitting up foolishness. Please, you will come back, we will have stuffed puffins and arrange your marriage."
What I disliked about Far Afield:
If you read my blog regularly, you know my predilection for action and pacing. There's plenty of action at times, actually, but the book is so emotional and character-centered that it moves slowly. In spite of that slow pacing, there was never a point that I would have even remotely considered setting Far Afield aside. There's a definite pull to the book, an uncertainty about whether Jonathan will stay in the Faroes and settle or feel obligated to return home. Far Afield is character-driven writing at its best.
The bottom line:
Superb writing, deft psychological insight, uncommonly skillful description and a unique setting make Far Afield a tremendously satisfying read. Highly, highly recommended, particularly for those who like reading about different places and people and enjoy a depth of characterization.
On a related note:
I read that favorite quote about eating stuffed puffins and arranging a marriage for Jonathan to Kiddo and got an interesting reaction. "Stuffed puffin sounds kind of good, actually."
My opinion is a little akin to the famous Ulysses Grant quote about Port Gibson, Mississippi being "too beautiful to burn." Puffins: Too Cute to Cook.