Bragi Ólafsson’s Pets, published by Open Letter Books and translated by Janice Balfour is really fucking good. It’s the best book I’ve read in at least eight months, possibly longer. Bragi Ólafsson is probably best known to Canadians as the bass player for the Sugarcubes, the band Björk was in before going solo and becoming the coolest weird chick on Earth. If you’re anything like me, the first thing you thought upon learning this fact was: “a novel written by a celebrity? When was the last time you read one of those that didn’t suck?” It turns out that Ólafsson is a pretty big deal in Iceland’s literary scene. He’s a respected author who’s won a bunch of prizes and runs his own publishing house. And no wonder, really. The Pets is goddamn brilliant.
Here’s the rundown: Emil Halldorsson is a bit of an asshole, but he’s a likable asshole, and he’s just come home from a trip to England. He has a son (who lives with his mother) and a girlfriend, but on the way home he makes a date with a lovely young lady who doesn’t know about his girlfriend. While he’s waiting for her and some other friends to come over, Havard Knutsson, a rather horrible man from his past, shows up unannounced. Emil doesn’t want to see him, but knows that Knutsson won’t go away until he’s good and ready, so he hides. Under the bed. It’s not the most brilliant of plans, but Emil doesn’t have a lot of options and Knutsson has him pretty rattled. Emil’s right to be rattled; though it takes most of the book to get all the specifics about how destructive he really is, watching Knutsson slowly and deliberately descend on Emil’s home in the opening sections of the book is incredibly intense. Knutsson invites himself in, and eventually winds up holding a kind of impromptu party for the parade of Emil’s friends and acquaintances that show up at his door. All while Emil listens and watches from beneath the bed.
The Pets is alternately funny, creepy, and wonderfully strange. It never stops moving. Janice Balfour’s translation is crisp and energetic; there’s a wonderful sense of alien-ness, of a different culture, without the prose suffering from any awkwardness or “translationese”. It feels almost like Ólafsson could have written the book in English himself, and I love that about it.
What else? The ending is phenomenal. It was dramatic, and frustrating, and a little bit shocking and awful, and the only possible way the book could have ended without being completely unsatisfying. Goddamn brilliant, I swear. I want to say more, but The Pets was surprising at every turn, and I think a lot of what works about the novel depends on not knowing what’s going to happen next.
Bragi Ólafsson’s The Pets was published by Open Letter Books, and translated by Janice Balfour. Next up is Wandering Time, by Luis Alberto Urrea.