Sjón. The Blue Fox. Translated by Victoria Cribb. Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2013.
Genre tags: historical fantasy, folklore, Iceland, disability history.
Sjón is Iceland’s best known contemporary author, widely read in English translation and celebrated for his weird, fairy-tale-esque, and often experimental fiction that blends the concerns of global society with Icelandic history and folk culture. The Blue Fox (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2013; trans. by Victoria Cribb), originally published as Skugga-Baldur in Icelandic, is a short novel just over a hundred pages that takes place in the snowy mountains of 19th century Iceland. It concerns a gruff, unkind reverend who goes off hunting a legendary skuggabaldur, lit. a “shadow baldur” but probably better translated as a “shadow cat,” a baldur being the offspring of a cat and a fox in Icelandic folklore. The skuggabaldur in turn hunts the reverend. Meanwhile, a farmer and amateur botanist living near the same village as the reverend is grieving the loss of his adopted daughter, a lady with Down’s syndrome who had previously been enslaved on a Dutch ship.
I don’t have much to say about that novel, which is one of the few I’ve read to depict a character with Down’s syndrome and to do so in a historical setting, diving into the treatment of disabled people in Icelandic history that makes the reader aware of just how complicit able-bodied society is in the creation of a the concept that certain lives aren’t “worth” living. Sjón does this with tact and historical realism, and does it well. I find the story of the farmer/botanist and his daughter ten times more interesting than that of the reverend and his hunt for the skuggabaldur, though the purpose of the hunt, when revealed at the end, makes the whole otherwise boring scenario worthwhile.
The Blue Fox is not a novel I’d necessarily recommend except to those interested in Iceland or in how a contemporary author weaves together historical fiction and folklore—at that, the novel succeeds very well and would be instructive for those looking to do similar work. The novel is also expertly translated and the manipulation of time and perspective are interesting in their own right for those who appreciate formal play.