Queer lives rife with sen­ti­ment and cliche

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOKS REVIEWS - SARAH GILMARTIN

CRIM­SON NIVIAQ KORNEILLSON Trans­lated by Anna Hala­gar Vi­rago, 192pp, £12.99

Irish fans of Dan­ish TV dra­mas such as Bor­gen and The Killing will have en­coun­tered Green­land through the lens of Dan­ish screen­writ­ers ea­ger to bring this rel­a­tively un­known coun­try to a global au­di­ence. But what of na­tive Green­landic cul­ture and lit­er­a­ture? An ar­ti­cle in the New Yorker last year noted a lit­er­ary his­tory barely a cen­tury old – the coun­try’s first home­grown novel, Sing­nag­tu­gaq by Mathias Stork, was pub­lished in 1915 – as it lauded the voice of a new nov­el­ist, Niviaq Korneillson.

Korneillson (27) is from Nuuk, Green­land’s cap­i­tal city and home to 18,000 of its 56,000 in­hab­i­tants. She wrote her de­but novel, Homo Sapi­enne, in 2014 af­ter re­ceiv­ing a grant to sus­tain her for three months of writ­ing. She pro­cras­ti­nated for two months and then com­pleted the book in four weeks, ac­cord­ing to the New Yorker in­ter­view.

Three years on, Vi­rago has pub­lished it in English in a very un­even trans­la­tion from Anna Hala­gar. It is easy to see the draw for an im­print like Vi­rago – a young fe­male voice chart­ing the lives of queer char­ac­ters in the rapidly chang­ing so­ci­ety of a coun­try whose back­drop is largely un­ex­plored. Writ­ten with hon­esty and vim, Crim­son, as it is now called, con­tains in­ter­est­ing sub­ject mat­ter on Green­land’s youth cul­ture and the ef­forts of the cur­rent gen­er­a­tion to es­cape – metaphor­i­cally and lit­er­ally – from a coun­try still haunted by its his­tory de­spite be­ing in the throes of mod­erni­sa­tion. There is a dis­tinctly Irish feel to its is­sues of coloni­sa­tion, al­co­holism, do­mes­tic abuse, and sex­ual mis­con­duct by those in power in a gov­ern­ment that has au­ton­omy but is still within the King­dom of Den­mark.

Though lag­ging be­hind Ire­land in many re­spects – in Crim­son, an MP can eas­ily squash a story in the me­dia and many in so­ci­ety are overtly ho­mo­pho­bic – the coun­try is as mod­ern in oth­ers, hav­ing voted to legalise gay mar­riage in 2015, for ex­am­ple. Korneillson’s five char­ac­ters are all mod­ern Green­lan­ders in their early to mid-20s. Fia, the book’s feisty first nar­ra­tor, longs to be rid of her dot­ing boyfriend Peter so she can get with Sara, a girl she meets at a party. That same party gets re­played over and over through the book’s other nar­ra­tors: Fia’s brother Inuk, who cas­ti­gates his sis­ter for be­ing gay be­fore com­ing out him­self; Inuk’s best friend Ar­naq, a wholly un­pleas­ant gay woman who lives to party; Iviq, a sym­pa­thet­i­cally ren­dered young transwoman; and fi­nally, Sara, Fia’s love in­ter­est and formerly sex­u­ally frus­trated girl­friend of Iviq.

The prob­lem with Crim­son lies not in the fact that all the char­ac­ters are sim­i­lar in age and aim – nov­els such as Sally Rooney’s Con­ver­sa­tions with Friends and Belinda McKeon’s Ten­der show that sto­ries about young peo­ple ex­plor­ing gen­der and sex­ual pol­i­tics can be pow­er­fully ef­fec­tive – but with writ­ing that con­stantly trips the reader up as we hope to delve fur­ther into the char­ac­ters’ psy­ches.

For a book that re­plays the same party night from mul­ti­ple per­spec­tives, there is a marked lack of orig­i­nal de­tail in mi­lieu or at­mos­phere. Mu­sic links the book­end­ing nar­ra­tives of star-crossed lovers Fia and Sara – “our song” Crim­son and Clover, “giv­ing us the per­fect sound­track” – but so too does a sim­i­lar­ity in voice. They are vir­tu­ally in­dis­tin­guish­able from each other, save for the fact that Sara’s sis­ter has just given birth, re­lated in clunky sec­ond­hand style: “Al­though this is the first time my sis­ter sees her baby, I can tell she feels she has al­ways known the child.”

All of the char­ac­ters share Fia’s (or the au­thor’s) ten­dency to­wards short, clipped sen­tences which are sup­posed to give a frag­mented in­te­ri­or­ity. In­stead they give mun­dane pro­nounce­ments on par­ties, hang­overs, sex, iden­tity and gen­der. Here’s Ar­naq on the vibe: “Repet­i­tive week­end. Walk­ing in par­ty­ing cir­cles. Ready to go again.” By the time we get to her nar­ra­tive, we know ex­actly how she feels. Her story – and that of Fia – suf­fers from the weight of nar­cis­sism, with lit­tle ac­tion or scene build­ing to show that the char­ac­ters care about each other de­spite the over-emot­ing in mes­sages and emails through­out the book.

Crim­son is rife with sen­ti­ment and cliche: “You look ev­ery inch a woman,” Fia tells Sara, be­fore telling the reader, “we sim­ply steal a glance at one an­other”. Mean­while here’s Inuk on Ar­naq: “She looks like an an­gel but she’s the devil per­son­i­fied. Trou­ble is, you can’t see her f***ing horns.” Else­where mis­sions are ac­com­plished, peo­ple make mul­ti­ple bee­lines for oth­ers, while smelling rats and be­ing left to hold the baby.

There are glimpses of in­ter­est­ing word­play in the na­tive lan­guage, char­ac­ter names in par­tic­u­lar, and a glos­sary of Green­landic terms in­cluded at the end, but such touches get lost in a book laden with plod­ding prose, in­au­then­tic di­a­logue and vir­tu­ally no space for the reader to con­sider the wider land­scape of the char­ac­ters or their coun­try.

The New Yorker deemed it a book of “strik­ingly mod­ern sen­si­bil­ity”. In its scope and sub­ject mat­ter, it has the po­ten­tial to be just this. In its ex­e­cu­tion, sadly not.

PHO­TO­GRAPH: JØRGEN CHEM­NITZ / MILIK PUB­LISH­ING

Niviaq Korneillson: her writ­ing con­stantly trips the reader up.

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