cover image Salka Valka

Salka Valka

Halldor Laxness, trans. from the Icelandic by Philip Roughton. Archipelago, $26 trade paper (626p) ISBN 978-1-953861-24-5

This resonant story by Nobel laureate Laxness (The Atom Station), first published in 1931, follows a girl’s coming of age amid poverty and social upheaval. Salka Valka is the child of a single mother growing up in a poor fishing village with little education or social support. She’s tough and determined, though, and defies the town’s norms as she educates herself, dresses in pants, enters the fishing industry, and organizes a union. Laxness tackles such tough social themes as abuse, stigma, sexism, and economic inequality, as Salka must consistently spurn the sexual advances of her unprincipled stepfather, deal with bullying from other villagers, and square her romance with an idealistic local man with her political engagement and desire for independence. Laxness (1902–1998) demonstrates a keen eye for details, with lyrical descriptions of the book’s setting, where “human life is all in fish and from fish.” Laxness also treats his characters with compassion; for example, while Salka’s mother is weak and frequently neglects her daughter, the reader learns enough about her to understand her perspective. This is a remarkable achievement and will hopefully lead to a revival of interest in an oft-overlooked literary genius. (Mar.)