The Promise of Iceland by Kári Gíslason

Kári Gíslason was born a secret. The love child of an Australian secretary and a married Icelandic man, he grew up understanding that his father’s identity must never be revealed. Shuttled back and forth between Australia, England and Iceland, Kári decided, at the age of 27, to defy his father’s plea for anonymity, and travelled to Iceland to introduce himself to the half-siblings and family he had never known. What led him to this decision, and what followed, is an engrossing account of love, cultural difference, and what it is to yearn for heima (to be at home).

Kári’s search for his father’s acknowledgement provides the narrative structure of this memoir, but the true delight of this book lies in Kári’s consideration of Iceland, Icelanders and their ‘specialisation in the painful love of one’s country’. Falling ‘hopelessly in love’ with Iceland himself, Kári sees in the small Nordic island the possibility of belonging; it is a substitute for his elusive father. He writes with an intrinsic understanding of what makes Iceland so winsome and beguiling, and his observations on the quirks of Icelanders are spot-on: their hostility to strangers, their desire for independence, their self-reliance and their inexplicable, powerful nostalgia for their homeland: ‘You could be homesick even when you were home.’

This is one of the better kinds of memoir – one in which the author is not only reflective, but also reflexive. Kári demonstrates an awareness of the fallibility of memory, of subjectivity, and his own shortcomings as a writer and son. He is an undoubted Icelandophile, but there is little fawning – his prose is direct but unhurried, and demonstrates those qualities he attributes to the Icelanders: self-deprecatory wit, profundity and a prying inquisitiveness into the lives of others.

Hannah Kent is deputy editor of Kill Your Darlings. She is currently writing a historical novel based in Iceland.