In Iceland, you can be sure that two things happen every year in January: bad weather and the Icelandic Book Prize. 2021 is no different, although this iteration of the contest did start with a bang. Earlier in the awards cycle, the Icelandic Publishers Association posted an ad online looking for “passionate book-lovers” to be in the panels for the book prizes. The result was a surprise of 280 applications from bibliophiles across the country. Although you can find some familiar names on the list, there are also a plethora of new and unexpected judges so, in some ways, the book prize has never been as egalitarian as it is now.
But we are here to talk about the books, not the politics—predicting the winners (and snubs) of the Icelandic Book Prize is an annual Grapevine parlour game—the sole purpose of which is to let you in on what’s new in literature these days. That said, only one of these books has been translated to English.
So, here are the contestants for the Icelandic Book Prize, who we will think will win and who we think should win. Just keep in mind that last year, we didn’t predict a single winner correctly, so just assume we’re full of it. In fact, if you’re an author, maybe you should hope we don’t choose you.
Critics have said that this wasn’t a particularly lively Christmas book season, but 2020 did bring us some pretty strong fiction. The buzziest buzz was around Ólafur Jóhann Ólafsson’s ‘Snerting’—‘One Station Away’ is available in English translation—which was the most sold book this year at the biggest Icelandic bookstores—no small feat considering that 2020 saw a popular release by the Icelandic crime king himself, Arnaldur Indriðason. Anyway, it seems to be the general consensus that ‘Snerting’ is not only well-written, but powerful in a quiet way. That said, it might be a little too quiet for some readers, but Ólafur Jóhann is no doubt a frontrunner here. In 2006, he received the prize for his short story collection ‘Aldingarðurinn’ (‘Valentines’) so this could be his moment to win the big award.
‘Snerting’ would be a no-contest winner if it wasn’t for the widely-loved and adored Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, who is nominated for her novel ‘Dýralíf’ (‘Life Of Animals’). Auður kind of snuck through the backdoor of the world of Icelandic literature. She is wildly famous in France and was nominated for the Nordic Council Book Prize in 2009 for her novel ‘Afleggjarinn’ (‘The Greenhouse’). But she wasn’t nominated for the Icelandic Book Prize that year. Her sales in Iceland were actually quite low compared to her acclaim abroad, which perhaps explains her absence from the list, but the snub was still a scandal. Auður didn’t really find fame here in Iceland until she won the Nordic Council Book Prize in 2016 for her book ‘Ör’ (‘Hotel Silence’), for which she was also awarded the Icelandic Book Prize that year. She could easily take it again this year.
But there is another option—a larger-than-life bohemian genius who could also grab the gold. Elísabet Jökulsdóttir, Iceland’s fusion of Bukowski and Sylvia Plath, is nominated for the book ‘Aprílsólkuldi’ (which is not a word easily translated, but means ‘April, Sun, Cold’). Elísabet had a rough upbringing; alcoholism was a big part of her life, which she writes about in this merciless reflection of her own existence. Elísabet is my favourite to win, although others in the office are torned between her and Auður Ava.
That said, there is a rule though when looking at literature in Iceland and that is never underestimate the sputnik writers. Jónas Reynir Gunnarsson as well as Arndís Þórarinsdóttir are two young and incredibly talented nominées. Jónas Reynir has a serious contribution with his novel ‘Dauði Skógar’ (‘Death Of A Forest’) and is a name you should memorise. He could definitely take the awards unexpectedly—deservingly so. Arndís, meanwhile, is the poet of the year. Every year, there is always one at the Icelandic Book Prize and unfortunately, they never win, which always raises the question if there should be a specific category for poets.
Icelanders understand that the only way to make a book-loving person is to grab them while they’re young, so the children’s book category is both good and very ambitious every year. Our favorite is of course Lóa Hjálmtýsdóttir, which our readers know very well through her fantastic comics that have graced the pages of our magazine for many years. Her book, ‘Grísafjörður’ (‘The Fjord Of Piglets’) has Lóa’s characteristic warm sense of humour as well as her fantastic artwork. Call it nepotism, but we favour her when it comes to the best children’s book of the year. And hey—it’s Iceland. When has a little nepotism ever hurt anyone?
Other nominees are Hildur Knútsdóttir for her young adult novel ‘Skógurinn’ (‘The Forest’). She won in 2016 and the panel tends to choose new writers rather than awarding already decorated authors, so she’s not our top prediction. The crime queen herself, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, is also nominated for her book, ‘Herra Bóbó, Amelía og Ættbrókin’, which is an interesting side project to her normal mystery novels. Other books are ‘Blokkin á heimsenda’ by Arndís Þórarinsdóttir—nominated above for her poetry collection—which she wrote with Hulda Sigrún Bjarnadóttir. There’s also ‘Dulstafir – Dóttir hafsins’ a young adult adventure written by another sputnik writer, Kristín Björg Sigurvinsdóttir. And as we said earlier, never underestimate them.
Honestly, we won’t go as in-depth into the non-fiction category. It’d be an article in itself and unfortunately, these books tend to be not translated into English for some reason. That said, our favourite is ‘Fuglinn sem gat ekki flogið’ or in English, ‘The Bird That Couldn’t Fly’ by Gísli Pálsson. The book delves into the history of the wonderful, weird great auk, which went extinct around 1900. The book does have a twist though—as much as a non-fiction book can—when it shifts its focus to the extinction of animals in Iceland in the face of global warming.
But who do we think is going to win? ‘Konur sem kjósa – aldarsaga’ or ‘Women That Vote’ by Erla Hulda Halldórsdóttir, Kristín Svava Tómasdóttir, Ragnheiður Kristjánsdóttir and Þorgerður H. Þorvaldsdóttir. This work is a culmination of years of academic research on the struggle for gender equality for over a hundred years. It also takes a look at the political and cultural sides of gender studies in Iceland.
So those are our predictions! Take them or leave them, but always remember that we’ve never predicted correctly. Not even once.
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