Review: 'Magma' by Thóra Hjörleifsdóttir, trans. Meg Matich

Magma is a confronting book, one which blazes and discomforts. I think the best writing, whether fiction or non-fiction, does exactly, inspiring its readers with new perspectives and ideas. But not all perspectives are equally pleasant, some reveal a darker side to humanity, a quiet suffering. Thanks to Grove Press, Black Cat and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 7/13/2021
Publisher: Grove Press; Black Cat

A compulsive, propulsive debut about a young woman’s haunting experience of love, abuse, and sex in an era of pornification by one of Iceland’s most provocative writers.

20-year old Lilja is in love. As a young university student, she is quickly smitten with the intelligent, beautiful young man from school who quotes Derrida and reads Latin and cooks balanced vegetarian meals. Before she even realizes, she’s moved in with him, living in his cramped apartment, surrounded by sour towels and flat Diet Cokes. As the newfound intimacy of sharing a shower and a bed fuels her desire to please her partner, his acts of nearly imperceptible abuse continue to mount undetected. Lilja desperately tries to be the perfect lover, attempting to meet his every need. But in order to do so, she gradually lets go of her boundaries and starts to lose her sense of self.

With astounding clarity and restraint, Hjörleifsdóttir sheds light on the commonplace undercurrents of violence that so often go undetected in romantic relationships. She deftly illustrates the failings of psychiatric systems in recognizing symptoms of cruelty, and in powerful, poetic prose depicts the unspooling of a tender-hearted woman desperate to love well.

Hjörleifsdóttir dedicates her book to women who live in silence, as 'shame and isolation thrive in that silence'. In Magma she tracks one young woman and how her thoughts about herself, her boyfriend, and relationships in general distort her ability to know what is and isn't healthy. The blurb mentions the effect of pornification and this indeed plays a big role in how Lilja sees herself and her relationship. Intimacy, connection, consent, orgasms, it has all been twisted by what she has seen, what her boyfriend tells her he has seen/witnessed/experienced. The odd balance at play here is that outside influences such as porn can be incredibly damaging, but also that cutting out any and all outside perspective is also damaging. It is this confusing mix that makes it impossible for Thóra Hjörleifsdóttir's Lilja to find a semblance of balance. 

Magma is actually a little more complex, in my opinion, than its blurb suggests. This isn't an in any way straightforward tracking of a relationship gone bad. Rather, Magma is written in short, episodic chapters, almost like diary entries. At its best, Magma reminds me of Carmen Maria Machado's brilliant In the Dream House, its story unfurling slowly but packing a punch at every step. There is no slow tracking, or gentle analyzing. There is just compromise after compromise, loss after loss. Her boyfriend is practically a parade of red flags but she employs all the justifications we have been taught in order to make him palatable. Maybe she should be more open to adventurous sex. She doesn't want to be pushy and traditionalist, so it's actually good that he doesn't introduce her as his girlfriend. He had a difficult childhood so of course he is weird to her friends and family who are perfectly normal and boring. He is an intellectual, so of course he is smarter than her. She slept around so she has no right to question why he still hooks up with other women. It all feels so inevitable that you can't help but follow Lilja down into darkness.

Thóra Hjörleifsdóttir's writing is deeply personal, sharp and painful. There is such conflict within Lilja's story that it becomes difficult for the reader as well. You go back and forth between deep empathy for Lilja and wishing she would just leave and be done with it. Although I myself have not been in an abusive relationship, I recognise Lilja's predicament from the experiences of friends. Knowing something is wrong isn't the same as wanting to leave. Wanting to leave isn't the same as having the ability to do so. Wanting to fix things, acknowleding your own wrongdoing just gets you sucked deeper and deeper into the abuse. The most heart-wrenching moments in Magma are when Lilja does reach out for help and meets with misunderstanding or ignorance. Magma shows that as a society, whether that society is Icelandic, Dutch, or American, we are not able to properly understand, deal with, or prevent abusive relationships. Novels such as Hjörleifsdóttir's therefore remain crucial to consistently confront their audiences with the complicated and conflicting nature of it. It must also be noted that Meg Matich does a brilliant job with her translation. The writing remains deeply personal, with touches of lyricism but mostly true honesty. 

I give this novel...

4 Universes!

Magma is a confronting read, despite its brevity, that lays bare how toxicity creeps in a relationship and how outside influences often complicate the matter.


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