The Fires: A Novel by Sigríður Hagalín Björnsdóttir
Seattle. Amazon Crossing. 2023. 332 pages.
The Fires is two things: it is a premonitory tale of what can happen when the forces residing within the earth and the human heart go unheeded, and it is a marketing ploy to broaden the genres offered translated into English to sell books to a wider audience. In the former role, it does relatively well, though it sometimes strays toward the clichéd.
Anna Arnardóttir, our strong female protagonist, is a happily married volcanologist, guided by the memory of her beloved scientist father and her faith in logic and reason. But the beating magmic heart of Iceland cannot always be predicted by computer models, and neither can her desire for the motorcycle-riding photographer that steals her heart. Reckoning with the power of geologic forces, against which we are no more than insects, so readily crushed by the sweep of a magmic hand or devoured into the darkness of a sinkhole, Bjornsdóttir braids the unrelenting forces of volcanic destruction with an equally destructive love.
On one hand, it is exactly what one might expect from a geological romance story set in Iceland, and it is exactly what Amazon Crossing’s executives probably anticipate women will want to read. It’s not particularly new, however, and it’s not particularly outstanding. Frequent epigraphs and asides interject somewhat irrelevant information about Iceland’s geological systems that upset the flow of the story, and although Björnsdóttir has a knack for evoking Anna’s powerful emotions, the interplay of romance and science is awkwardly done.
On the other hand, as romance novels go, it delivers a surprisingly powerful message alongside its predicted one: try to control love, and you will cause misery. And the corollary: attempt to profit from forces you don’t quite understand, and you can expect nothing but extraordinary death and destruction. The words of the prophet are not written on the subway walls, apparently, but in an Icelandic romance novel.
Proponents of more translated fiction argue that our culture needs an influx of ideas and art from around the world to stay fresh and relevant, and The Fires is the unlikely messenger of the words Americans need to hear most right now, delivered straight from the land of fire and ice. Just like Anna, it is more imperative than ever that we listen to our intuition and heed the warnings of a warming planet. Otherwise, we risk everything.