The Journey Home

The Journey Home

by Olaf Olafsson, Olafsson Olaf

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A lyrical and arresting novel by acclaimed Icelandic writer Olaf Olafsson about one woman's redemptive journey home.

Disa Jonsdottir has managed an inn for years with her companion, Anthony, in the English countryside. Compelled by the demands of time to revisit the village of her childhood, she departs England for her native Iceland. Along the way memories surface-of the rift between her and her mother, of the fate of her German-Jewish lover, of the trauma she experienced while working as a cook in a wealthy household. Skillfully weaving past and present, Olafsson builds toward an emotional climax that renders The Journey Home moving, suspenseful, and unforgettable.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385720410
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/30/2001
Edition description: 1 ANCHOR
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 5.19(w) x 7.96(h) x 0.65(d)

About the Author

Olaf Olafsson lives in New York City.

Read an Excerpt

I'm getting ready to leave.
The fire is crackling with a familiar sound in the hearth and the aroma of last night's baked apples still lingers down here in the kitchen. The sky is awakening; I can just make out a pink glow in the east. It's as if my dog had sensed that I'm about to go. Instead of lying by the fire with eyes closed as she usually does early in the morning, she's trailing me around, rubbing herself against my legs. All is silent in the house; I'm the only one up, having slept badly as I've always done when I've been about to make a journey. But this time I am going to do it. Whatever happens, I am not going to let myself have a change of heart now.
I open the window to let in the morning breeze and take a deep breath. A bird perches on a branch outside the window, a blackbird, not unlike an Icelandic redwing, gazing at me with a slightly sad eye. A mist lies over the fields and the dew-laden grasses stir gently in the wind. It has been a hard winter but now spring has arrived and a pleasant sulfurous smell rises from the wood where the leaf mold has started to rot. The trees have turned green at last, their branches losing that gray look, and the breeze picks up the hesitant chuckling of the brook, carrying it over like a postman with good news in his bag.
When I awoke I saw two horses down by the brook. It was three o'clock in the morning. Without turning on the light, I wrapped myself in a warm blanket and watched them through the window. They moved slowly, blue in the bright moonlight. Suddenly one of them seemed to take fright. It bolted away over the field, disappearing from sight behind Old Marshall's cottage, as if into thin air. I glanced back toward the brook but the other horse had vanished as well. This filled me with misgiving, though there was really no reason why it should, and I went downstairs to the kitchen to be comforted by the lingering aroma of last night's supper. I knew no better way of clearing my mind.
I blow on the embers in the hearth, then put on two good-sized, dry logs. The fire soon warms the room, reviving the scent of last night's supper like an unexpected memory. I wait for my nose to wake up too, wanting to recapture the aroma of the trout which I'd fried with a sprinkling of ground almonds, and the rich, tender wild mushrooms. And the apples which I love to bake after they have soaked in port for a long, quiet afternoon. My dog rubs against me, whining unconvincingly in the hope that I'll scratch her behind her ears, and laying her head in my lap when I sit down in front of the fire. It is beginning to grow light outside, a pale blue-gray gleam illuminating the mist in the fields.
I sit a bit longer, tying to summon the remembered aroma of the mushrooms and trout, but can't, no matter how hard I try. The apples won't let them through. "Strange," I whisper to myself, but I know better. Lately they seem to have been haunting my memory, the bowl of apples which greeted me when I arrived for the first time at the house in Fjolugata. And to think I believed I had actively begun to forget those days.
I grind coffee beans in my old mill and turn on the ring under the kettle before going up to get dressed. My dog follows me upstairs. "Tina," I say, "dear old lady. You'll keep an eye on everything while I'm gone, won't you?"
Anthony is up and about. I can hear him in the shared bathroom which divides our bedrooms. I feel he has aged a bit this winter but his expression is still as open and candid as ever. I thank providence that our paths have crossed. I don't know what would have happened otherwise.
My mood lightens at the sound of his humming as he rinses out his shaving brush in the sink. "De-de-de-de-de-dum-dum."
I was awakened before dawn as so often before by the ringing of a telephone. I sat bolt upright in bed, waiting to hear the sound again but I was aware of nothing but the echo of the dream in my head. I have become used to this annoyance but it never fails to upset me.
The suitcases are waiting down in the entrance hall; I pause on my way upstairs as they catch my eye. Handsome, leather cases, given to Anthony by his father before the war. They must have been in the family for decades, accompanying them to Africa and America. And India too, of course. Strongly made, yet soft to the touch.
I glance out my bedroom window. The sun has risen and its rays are stroking the mist from the fields, gently as a mother caressing her child's cheek. This time I will do it. This time I won't have a change of heart.

What People are Saying About This

Margot Livesey

With masterful skill and elegant prose, Olaf Olafsson gradually reveals his fierce heroine and her complicated story. The Journey Home is an eerie, suspenseful novel, one that delivers surprises until the very last beautiful page and that happily remains with the reader long after that.
—(Margot Livesey, author of Criminals and The Missing World)

Reading Group Guide

The introduction, discussion questions, author biography, and suggested reading list that follow are designed to enhance your group's reading of The Journey Home, a novel that The New York Times Book Review has called "mature and wide-ranging . . . both geographically and emotionally."

1. In The Journey Home Disa travels back to Iceland and back into her own past. Why does she undertake these journeys? What is she trying to come to terms with? Does "home" have more than one meaning in this context?

2. Olaf Olafsson assumes a female voice to narrate The Journey Home. How well does he succeed in seeing the world through a woman's eyes and in representing a woman's inner life? Are there problems inherent in speaking in a voice of another gender?

3. The Journey Home is in part an exploration of time and memory; its chapters alternate between Disa's present, her recent past, and the distant past of her life as a child in the 1930s and as a young woman during World War II. Why has Olafsson structured his novel in this way? What effects does he achieve with this layering of time frames that would be lost in a more conventional and straightforwardly chronological narrative?

4. Before she begins her journey, Disa looks out her bedroom window: "The sun has risen and its rays are stroking the mist from the fields, gently as a mother caressing her child's cheek. This time I will do it. This time I won't have a change of heart" [p. 5]. Why does she describe the sunrise in this particular way? What does it reveal about her motives for taking this trip? Where else in the novel do descriptions of nature and weather serve as metaphors for Disa's emotional state?

5. At the outset of her journey, Disa thinks to herself, "The truth is often better left alone; there's no need to turn over every stone in your path, no point wasting your time in endlessly regretting something that could have turned out differently. No, it doesn't do anyone any good. Sometimes you have to get a grip on yourself to keep your thoughts under control, but it's worth it" [p. 43]. Why would Disa feel that the truth is "often better left alone"? What regrets of her own is she trying to contain here? Why would she feel that controlling rather than expressing one's emotions is a good thing?

6. In thinking about death, Disa writes that she doesn't expect to find anything on the other side: "Of course, no one would be more delighted than me if the Almighty were to send me a brochure from heaven . . . illustrated with beautiful pictures and detailed descriptions of the delights in store for us, the Chosen Ones. But as I've never re-ceived any such message, either by post or in a dream, I suppose I'll have to resign myself to the idea that death will be followed by Nothing" [p. 58]. Why does Disa feel this way? Where else in the novel does she express this kind of ironic disbelief or bitterness toward God? How does Disa's own impending death affect her views?

7. Disa meets Jakob at the circus freak show when, in the panic caused by the "monster" dwarf leaping into the audience, the future lovers are both knocked to the ground. In light of what is to follow for them, how can this entire scene [pp. 104-11] be read as an ominous sign for their future? In what ways does it prefigure what happens to Disa and Jakob?

8. What causes the breach between Disa and her mother? Is Disa right in not forgiving her? What unconscious motives, given Disa's own situation as a parent, might have colored her feelings toward her mother?

9. The horrors of the Holocaust have been written about eloquently and often in the past fifty years. How does The Journey Home offer a fresh perspective on the suffering caused by the Nazis? In what ways is Disa's life forever altered not only by Jakob's death but by her mother's reactions and Atli's behavior when he returns from Germany? What cruel ironies are involved in Disa giving birth to Atli's child? What relationship does this event have to her journey home?

10. When Disa draws a shotgun on the drunken workers who claim to have won her hotel in a game of cards, she reveals the toughness and forcefulness of her character. Where else in the novel does she exhibit this kind of spirit? What other essential traits does she possess? What kind of woman is she?

11. The Journey Home abounds in sensual descriptions of food and cooking. Disa writes, "Some-times I'm moved to cook snails in honey for the simple reason that I've seen bees buzzing in the sunshine; sometimes a bird singing on a branch will give me the idea of putting blackberries or currants in the sauce I'm preparing" [p. 66]. What do food and cooking mean to Disa? In what ways is her approach to cooking extraordinary?

12. What kind of relationship does Disa have with Anthony? What do they offer each other? What makes Disa say of him: "I thank providence that our paths should have crossed. I don't know what would have happened otherwise" [p. 5]?

13. In looking back at her relationship with Jakob, Disa writes, "Of course, I loved Jakob more than words can tell, but what is love but a quest for disappointment? I was blind when I took leave of Mrs. Brown with a long embrace. Blind when I lied to my mother that I was going to Somerset for Boulestin. Blind" [pp. 117-18]. Why would Disa take this view? Is she right in her assessment of what love is? Could or should she have foreseen the consequences of her love for Jakob?

14. At the very end of the novel, after Disa has seen her son graduate, she goes back to get one last look and literally runs into him: " . . . He turns round and walks straight into me. I jump and drop my bag on the floor. It opens and a couple of things spill out of it: my lipstick and the photo of him in my arms. 'Sorry,' he says. 'I'm terribly sorry'" [p. 293]. What is the significance of this encounter? Of his handing the picture back to Disa? Of his saying "I'm terribly sorry"? Why does Disa now feel that he will always be with her? In what ways does this scene provide her with the closure she needs?

15. In what ways can The Journey Home be applied beyond the story of one woman to a more general meditation of the relationship of past to present, or of the need to come to terms with the past?

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Journey Home 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Whisper1 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is not a gut wrenching, page turner. This is not a fast paced emotional story.This is a poetic, marvelous tale of Disa who recently received word that she has a year to live thus prompting her to travel back home to Iceland.Living in the English countryside, managing a lovely bed and breakfast, Disa is content with her life. The author paints a calm, aesthetic portrait of flowers and rolling hills, of food prepared well, of clean, quiet restful rooms and a tranquil lifestyle.Leaving her well-defined comfortable environment, traveling by ship affords Disa time to reflect on her life as she slowly approaches her destination.Her memories flicker and, even though some events experienced were painful, we observe her life as through a panoply of color where patterns change and shift and the kaledscope turns prismatic with each tiny nudge.We are taken back to WWII and Nazi occupation of Europe, of Disa's Jewish lover, of her mother's disapproval of her career and choice of partner, of friendships made and friendship lost, of events out of her control and then, of choices intentionally made.Highly recommended.
MoniqueReads on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The novel is told in first person style. The main character Disa, kind of reminds me of the butler from "Remains of The Day" by Kazuo Ishiguro. Both of the characters are very proper and English (except that Disa is really Icelandic). The other similarity is that the stories take place in roughly the same time period. Spanning the beginning of WWII and its after math. I wanted to like Disa's character, but just like the butler (I can't remember his name) in "Remains of The Day" they were both to detached for me to really like or care about."The Journey Home" is also written in vinaigrette style, sort of like "The House on Mango Street" but Olafsson pulls it off much better. The littler vinaigrette's are like diary entries and lets the reader not only into parts of Disa's current and pass life but also her thought process. Once I got use to how dry her personality was the reading became easier. The only problem that I had with the writing is that there is a lot of back and forth between pass and present. There was never a clear indication when Disa was reflecting on her past. So, I had to pay close attention to the details to see what time frame she was talking about.The story really picks up when Disa starts her journey back to Iceland and starts to reflect on her pass experiencing and how they all ended up interconnected to one another. I began to look forward to her when she talked about her time with Jakob (the German-Jew lover) and even though I knew what happens to Jakob, I wanted to know how Disa would deal with the final outcome.I also like how Olafsson put little "clues" to what happened in Disa's past in the story. There are times that you know what the final outcome is going to be, like with Jakob and what happens at the employer's house, but when you get to those moments its nice to finally get a little detail to the whole event.Olafsson has this great way of ending each little chapter with great sentences. that really got to me. I ended up looking forward to them. They were great little closing to each chapter. For example. Lonely notes drifting through the emptiness, futile - completely futile. I took a long time descending the stairs. I reach for my photo of him. The lines are so simple but say so much. All the writing in the book is like that, simple yet elegant.I was only going to give this novel about 3 stars (or 3.5) What pushed this book over the top for me was the last about 50 pages or so. I couldn't put it down. And I almost cried and anything that makes me cry (and not because the book is just that bad) deserves a nice rating.Pros: Writing, Plot, StyleCons: Slow at First, Detached Main CharacterOverall Recommendation:I am going to recommend this book. I think that people who enjoyed "Remains of the Day" will really like this one. But expect it to be sort of slow in the beginning and stick to it. You will be rewarded.
akeela on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Middle-aged Asdis "Disa" Jonsdottir has been living in England for many years but on learning that she is terminally ill, decides to go on a journey to Iceland, the land of her birth. The story is the narrative of her life and her loves, as she quietly reflects on her past, sharing her greatest disappointments, and joys. This was a good, atmospheric read.
punxsygal on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Disa is taking her final trip back home to Iceland. She knows it is her final trip as she has been diagnosed with a terminal illness. Disa has spent many years residing in England managing a country-home hotel. As she had chosen to go by boat, she is left a lot of time to reflect on her childhood and previous journeys home. And in those reflections the reader learns the story of her life, her love, disappointments, and hopes for resolution.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago