By Sarah Ensor
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Issue 416

This short, beautiful novel tells the story of Máni Steinn Karlsson, a movie-obsessed teenager living with his one ancient relative in an attic in the centre of Reykjavik, Iceland, in 1918. Máni Steinn, translated as Moonstone, roams the small town looking for the odd jobs available to a boy who struggles to read and planning which film he will see next in either of the two cinemas.

Comfortable, cultured people campaign against this new media, where young and working class people share news and entertainment from the wider world in the warmth — despite coal shortages caused by the war. Máni Steinn has permission to go to these films from his great aunt, as long as he doesn’t start smoking again. He will see almost all of the three or more new films showing every week because, despite his obvious poverty, he always has money from selling sex to “gentlemen”. Those who feel the most guilt and are most vociferous against these “abominations”, pay the most.

There is a girl that Máni Steinn feels intensely about, Sóla G, who is struggling to be her own person against the conventions and oppressions of her class and gender. She is so much richer than he is that they would normally have very little to do with each other. But their small society, already under pressure from the enormous eruption of volcano Katla, is about to be broken apart as Spanish flu arrives by boat.

The painful, bloody sickness scythes through adults in their 20s, 30s and 40s, leaving the old and young relatively safe. Sóla drives an ambulance and Máni Steinn is hired to carry the sick to the emergency hospital and to carry the bodies out, until he gets sick himself. But none of this heroic work counts when the crisis comes and the boy’s sexuality is exposed in a comic international incident.

The author’s style of writing is sparse and it seems that every word has been cut to fit. The effect is to tell much more than the number of words and leave a curious reader thinking about the story long after it is read. It also leaves Máni Steinn and Sóla G some privacy, as it becomes apparent that however much this is fiction, there are real people and lives here.

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