‘Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was’ by Sjón

My rating: 4 stars

Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was by the Icelandic author Sjón is a short but powerful book. More than a tale about the young man Máni Steinn, it’s a beautifully written novella which combines fiction and reality, with one inspiring the other in more than one way.

Máni is a sixteen-year-old boy who lives in Reykjavik with his great-grandmother’s sister, since his mother died when he was really young. He is passionate about cinema, loves watching films and venerates Sóla, a girl whom he believes to be identical to an actress from a film he has seen. The book opens with Máni accompanied by one of his “gentlemen”. His encounters with them are mentioned throughout the book, and his sexual identity is not without implications.

The majority of the story takes place in 1918 and there are many mentions to historical events, such as the eruption of the Katla volcano (which is visually described through the use of colours), the referendum to independence, the First World War Armistice and the Spanish flu. Although they help the reader to place the story in a specific time, some of the references feel a bit disjointed from the rest of the plot.

That is not the case, however, with the Spanish flu, which has a devastating effect in Reykjavik. The streets become empty and the orchestra, which accompanied the projection of films, stops playing. The cinemas end up closing while the city is ravaged by the flu, leaving Máni without his favourite spare-time activity. Cinema has a significant presence throughout the story, with many (sometimes too long) references being made to the films which were released at the time.

I was really impressed by the writing style. Many words are perfectly matched, without it feeling forced, to describe something that could have been said in a simpler way but with far less emotion. For example, to reveal that Máni doesn’t know how to properly read, Sjón wrote:

“The letters of the alphabet disguise themselves before his eyes, glide between lines, switch roles in the middle of a word, and might as well be a code to which he does not have the key.”

The last paragraph in the book, which explains the reason behind the title and why Sjón decided to write this story, is both heart-warming and heart-breaking in equal measure. There are many feelings inside this short book, which could have been even more powerful if the flow of story wasn’t hindered by so many references to specific films.

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