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The Greenhouse Paperback – October 11, 2011
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A Q&A with Audur Ava Olafsdottir
Question: Are you a gardener yourself, or are the references to growth and cultivation in The Greenhouse intended as a metaphor for the protagonist’s own growth and self-realization?
Audur Ava Olafsdottir: I would like to be a gardener like my protagonist, Lobbi--"silent in the soil," so to speak. But really, I am just an author using my imagination as a tool. While I was writing The Greenhouse, my own garden in Reykjavik was neglected.
Q: What inspired you to get inside the head of a twentysomething man?
AAO: The novel tells the story of a very young father who is "practically brought up in a greenhouse" and has three main interests in life: sex, death, and cultivating roses. The story focuses on his many complex roles as a son, a twin brother, a lover, and a father. I was particularly interested in fatherhood, which is in many ways an abstract experience--especially when you have a child with a stranger, like Lobbi does--compared to the woman's experience of giving birth. I like to play with traditional gender roles by talking about male sensitivity.
Q: Lobbi tries to move on after his mother's death by taking a journey to restore the gardens of a remote monastery. Is the monastery he visits based on a real place?
AAO: Many people have asked me where the beautiful rose garden in the story is. I answer that the possibility of creating a garden and making it real is always there if you can make it grow in the reader's mind. That's how fiction works. My Lobbi is traveling through an unnamed country. As in all fictional travels, the narrator becomes acquainted with himself, rather than with a place.
Q: Through Lobbi's grief-stricken eyes after the death of his mother, you paint Iceland as barren and desolate place. But how would you describe the country yourself?
AAO: The natural landscape is breathtaking. It is like being lost in space or in infinity, and it gives you the feeling of total freedom. Being an Icelander also means being part of a small community of 317,000 people and being constantly confronted with the unpredictable: weather, volcanic eruptions, bankruptcy. Being an Icelandic writer means expressing myself in a marginal language that no one understands.
Q: You have a degree in art history and also work as a curator. How did you get into writing? Does your eye for art give you a different perspective?
AAO: I think the main impact of working full-time as an art historian is that there's a longer gap between books. But thousands of pictures have gone through my mind, and they probably have some influence on my writing. There's often a picture in my mind as a starting point, but while I'm writing, it disappears beneath layers of text.
My view of the world has always been slightly skewed. Then, out of nowhere, I had this urge to create fictitious worlds with their own laws. Maybe it comes from a strong need for freedom. Like many writers, I want the world to be different, and writing novels is my small contribution to that.
Q: Lobbi and Anna's daughter is an angelic creature--easy to care for and a positive influence on others. But you’re a mother, and you know that child rearing can be far from easy. Why did you portray the baby that way?
AAO: Is not any child a miracle and fatherhood a wonderful opportunity?
Following the death of his mother, whose beloved greenhouse was home to rare roses, 22-year-old Lobbi leaves his elderly father and autistic twin brother behind in his native Iceland to take a job restoring a medieval rose garden at a European monastery. He is also leaving behind Flora Sol, his infant daughter, the result of a meaningless one-night-stand with Anna, a young woman determined to pursue her university degree in spite of her single motherhood. Arriving at the monastery after a tempestuous journey that involves unexpected surgery and an otherworldly drive through mystical forests, Lobbi adjusts to his new life, where he engages in self-contemplation with the help of a monk who is most comfortable giving advice through the viewing of movies. When Anna and Flora Sol suddenly appear, Lobbi is finally able to appreciate what it means to be a father and son, friend and tender of souls, both human and floral. Buoyed by FitzGibbon’s luminous translation, Olafsdottir’s internationally award-winning tale is a melancholy yet moving portrait of a young man struggling to make sense of unconventional relationships and responsibilities. — Carol Haggas
Top customer reviews
On the surface it is a first-person narrative that tells the coming of age story of Arnljótur (or "Lobbi"), a 22 year old from Iceland who goes on a journey to find himself. He is a thoughtful boy who studies in the family greenhouse "to be able to read close to the plants" and who thinks about what it might mean to "spend one's entire childhood waiting for a single tree to grow".
His journey takes him from Iceland, which he sees as dominated by moss, tussocks and swamps, to a cliff-top monastery in an intentionally unnamed country that provides a stark contrast to his homeland. We hear him think through his bodily longings, what it means to be a man, fatherhood, faith, death, and our connections with the planet and the plants around us. And beneath all of this there is the question of how we relate to people, and how those relationships make us whole. There is the ever-present memory of Arnljótur's mother and the unforgettable final conversation that he had with her, as well as his evolving closeness to his daughter, Flóra Sól.
Olafsdottir makes liberal use of symbolism, and most significantly there is the precious Rosa Candida, the violet-red, thorn-less, eight-petaled rose.
Richness also comes from Olafsdottir's beautifully drawn minor characters. She captures monastic life wonderfully; in the absence of sustained contact with a broader community the small details of daily routines and of relationships mean so much to the monks. The villagers also are simple yet colorful. And there is Arnljótur's father, about whom you learn a lot from this one line: "When he's finished asking me about the weather and the traffic conditions on the roads, he tells me that seven depressions have crossed the country in about as many days."
Finally, there is Father Thomas. If you're a fan of Indie and Art House films then you might enjoy this list of mentioned movies:
1. Cesar & Rosalie
3. Trois Couleurs: Bleu
4. The Seventh Seal
5. Eat Drink Man Woman
7. Babette's Feast
8. Like Water For Chocolate
9. Chungking Express
10. In the Mood for Love
11. Je vous salue (Hail Mary)
He Also mentions Michelangelo Antonioni and Jean-Luc Godard.
His recommendations range from the bizarre (the movie with Yves Montana and Romy Schneider is César & Rosalie) to the more expected (Trois Couleurs: Bleu, in which the heroine, like Arnljótur, witnesses a horrific car accident, obsesses about death, and goes on a journey of self-discovery).
Arnljótur emerges as an everyman with whom we can identify, and I hope that we will see more from Audur Ava Olafsdottir.
Lobbi travels to the village in an unnamed location and finds a land that is strange indeed. The people there are kind but they speak their own language—a language that is dying—and there are no children that he can see. He begins work at the monastery and meets a monk who is a movie fan and who invites him to join him for his nightly movie watching. Just as Lobbi settles into a routine, he receives a letter from Anna telling him she has to go away for a month and wants to know if he will care for his now nine-month-old daughter.
The writing is lovely, the people are touching, and the descriptions of this mysterious land are positively enchanting. A lovely book.
Written in the first person, the story takes a young man from his small town in Iceland to a remote monastery a thousand miles away to work in its famous rose garden, long neglected and in disrepair.
But this is so much more about a pure of heart individual touching the lives of so many as his experiences begin to mature him. Mainly through the conduit of his beautiful nine month old daughter, conceived from a casual encounter, suddenly appearing on the scene with the mother for a stay of tentative duration.
At the end I longed to remain in this family's life, to find out what happens to them, especially the remarkable child. I was convinced this was written by a man until the author's description at the end. Therefore, this book would appeal to both men and women who enjoy a good human interest story.