3 out of 4 stars
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Black Beach by Olivia Rana is a story about a painful but tender mother-daughter relationship, steeped in the mythology of Iceland. The women in question are Friða and Alda, a medium and seismologist respectively. The novel begins in 1953 with young Friða discovering her gift, the ability to see the ‘Huldufólk’ (‘Hidden People’), Iceland’s race of elves, living invisibly alongside the human world. Friða then wakes up in a nursing home in 2021, confused and upset, only to be told by Pálina, her Huldufólk friend, that developers are planning to rebuild the harbour on Black Beach, which would destroy the homes of the Huldufólk and bring a mysterious “curse” down on the village of Vík, referencing a previous disaster in Friða’s childhood. Friða immediately escapes her nursing home and sets out to Vík to attempt to stop the harbor and save the Huldufólk living there. As Friða struggles across snowbound Iceland, Alda launches a frantic search for her mother, while delving into her past, uncovering mysteries that are gradually revealed to the reader in the 1950s timeline.
I loved the fantastical elements of Black Beach. Rana spent time in Iceland getting to know people like Friða, who hold to traditional beliefs about the Huldufólk, and it shows. Trolls, Norse gods and ghosts are also mentioned, and our glimpses into Huldufólk culture are intriguing. At one point, Friða is ferried down the coast by her elven friends in a boat kitted out with modern conveniences, like a burner and sink. Is it an elf boat or a human boat? Do Huldufólk regularly use human technology? This reviewer needs to know. These and other tiny details, like references to Icelandic newspapers and television stations, adds a richness to the world of the novel.
I also liked the dual timeline. From the first chapter, Rana teases tantalizing details about the Huldufólk, the “curse” and Friða’s own life, effectively building mystery and hooking my interest. These mysteries are explored in flashbacks to the fifties, though 2021 Friða’s muddled ramblings hint at new secrets until almost the end of the novel. As a narrative device, it becomes a little tiresome towards the end, but for the most part works well. Unlike Alda point-of-view chapters, which are clear and linear, reflecting her no-nonsense personality, the mix of timelines in Friða’s evokes the confusion of a person suffering from dementia. As Friða herself says: “The past is where I live. It’s only today that I’ve trouble holding onto.” On a meta level, the timelines also work as a reminder that Friða straddles two worlds: Huldufólk and human. She is rooted in the past and values traditional beliefs, as opposed to Alda’s more modern, scientific bent.
This subtle characterization is a strength of Black Beach. Alda and Friða are both flawed but sympathetic and their relationship is the core of the story, grounding the fantasy. Alda particularly grows as a character, making the novel’s predictable ending emotionally satisfying nonetheless. I was less impressed by the characterization of supporting characters. Laugar, Alda’s colleague and love interest, is particularly underdeveloped. He is the open-minded scientist to Alda’s ‘non-believer’, a plot device to ease Alda into re-evaluating her mother and the Huldufólk, which makes the ‘romance’ feel tacked on.
Even so, I would give Black Beach three out of four stars. Its two main characters and the Icelandic mythology are interesting and its many little mysteries build nicely. Unfortunately, I cannot rate it higher, as I noticed a few perplexing editorial errors, and I found some of the dialogue flat, with clichéd phrases like: “Let go of me, you monster” (without even an exclamation mark!) undermining scenes that should have been dramatic. There is some infrequent mild swearing and two non-explicit implied sex scenes, though I found the second a little uncomfortable due to the passivity of the female participant (“There’s no way she can stop him now.”). Yikes. I’d also like to warn readers that Friða suffers abuse at a psychiatric hospital, both as a child and as an adult, and that there are hints of an abusive marriage. Her struggle with dementia may also be upsetting to some readers. Still, Black Beach should be suitable for most adult readers, especially fans of family dramas and folklore. I recommend it.
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