This beautiful novel is several love stories at once: the lifelong one between the narrator’s Omma and Abbe—her Faroese grandparents—the Omma’s for another man, and, principally, the complicated affections each character feels for the windswept archipelago itself. Growing up in Copenhagen as the third generation of her Danish-Faroese family, the speaker is intimately familiar with a “pathological homesickness” that leads her to retrace her grandparents’ lives. In a series of vivid snapshots intercut with her own occasional island sojourns, she recreates their courtship, year-long separation, European reunion, and highlights from the Second and Cold Wars. The novel is less about history, however, than it is about shifting currents of home and exile. Just as, after a lifetime away, the islands her Abbe “longed for existed somewhere outside geography,” the place Jacobsen evokes in her lyrical, spare, and utterly magical prose exists primarily in language. Open to any page, and the images pop: “at the end of March, winter simply fell off like a scab”; the cherry tree “grew and muttered to itself sentences of white and pink”; coves are “nature’s own solitary confinement cells.” And perhaps most salient: “home is a toponym…a place name,” and in Jacobsen’s vivid articulation, the word is everything.
Departing from his signature autofictional mode, Knausgaard follows nine loosely connected characters whose daily lives are interrupted by the appearance of a bright new star in the sky. As the quotidian collides with the wonder and horror of the fantastic--especially the series of eerie events the astral phenomenon ushers in--each begins to question the nature of their existence, their precarius faith, and even whether life has any inherent meaning. Read in the context of the ongoing pandemic, the novel is a remarkable exploration of human experience in the face of something overwhelming.
Maylis de Kerangal is truly a singular writer, and Painting Time is a perfect example of her unique sensibilities. Translated from the French, the novel follows a young student at the famous Institut de Peinture in Brussels. De Kerangal describes painting as an intensely physical act: painters' bodies are hardened and strained by their work, and the artists fight constantly against their physical limits to create perfect recreations of the world. Here decorative paintings function not as ephemeral ideas, but as material objects, embodied by their artists’ obsessive attention to detail. Painting Time is hypnotic and obsessive, but also suffused with warmth and a near spirituality, charmingly narrated in de Kerangal’s intimate, strangely whimsical, authorial voice. One of my favorites of the year.