Short Story Review – Kristín Eiríksdóttir – Holes in People

This short story review has been imported from my now-defunct review website.  I will progressively import the remaining and available reviews throughout the coming months, all of which can be found here.

When the narrator of Holes in People (trans. Christopher Burawa) was very young, her father, who normally liked to relax on a Sunday by listening to records or reading science fiction, instead decides one day to dig a hole in the ground:

When the hole was as deep as Dad, as long as a grave, and the dirt pile as tall as me, he climbed out.  He was sweaty across the chest and red in the face, between gasps he told me that I now had to fill in the hole myself.

His daughter, the narrator, fills the hole in, leaving a mound of tossed dirt.  Nothing was placed into the hole.  The narrator, trusting and young, believes there must be some reason behind her father’s strange behaviour. The next day, her father disappears, and isn’t seen alive again by his family.

Two pages into this eleven-page story and an intriguing setup has been created.  From here, Icelandic writer Kristín Eiríksdóttir continues her story as a series of vignettes, highlighting some of the important times in the young narrator’s life as she matures into an adult (a deeply troubled, alcoholic, criminal adult).  At first, the narrator finds “clues” from her father – items taped inside the shade of a lamp, or behind the sink, or written in “Wite Out” on a white piece of paper.  The clues are all either notes that point to “eitur” (poison in Icelandic), or photographs of the family when they were young, and often of the narrator’s mother.  The narrator, irretrievably broken by her father’s abandonment, searches desperately for these clues and attempts to piece them together.  Her attempts fail, partly because neither the narrator nor her brother, nor indeed ourselves, the reader, are entirely sure that these clues are clues.  If I were to vanish tomorrow, what would my family make of a random photograph found in the third drawer of my dressing table?  Perhaps nothing, perhaps everything.  Unfortunately for the narrator, she makes of these “clues” everything, and comes to the perhaps inevitable conclusion that she herself is the “eitur” of which her father mentions, and that it is her fault he has disappeared.

Time passes.   The narrator is now an adult woman, her life basically off the rails. We meet her again and this time she has a knife in her hand, ketamine in the kitchen, and a potentially abusive boyfriend.  She’s a wreck and, to her psychologist, she admits she could probably become a prostitute because she is “good at getting men to feel that they were important.”  Instead of becoming a prostitute she learns photography, and becomes very good at it.  From there, her life seems to rebalance itself, and she comes into contact again with her estranged brother.

So far, so good.  But the little girl who needed clues to find her father, one day finds the greatest clue of all:

The container was outfitted like a house, full of cans, food wrappers, empty bottles, leftovers.

On the walls hung photos of naked women and newspaper clippings from all over the world.  The body lay on a mattress in the corner of the container, the features sloughed off and maggots covered every inch.

The container has come from a cargo ship she was photographing and, with no more evidence than being reminded of her father’s smell, she determines that the rotting dead man is in fact he, and that she has found him.  A funeral ensues, and the man’s notebooks are taken and read by her.  Curiously, the narrator’s family seems to believe that this person was the missing father, but no concrete evidence is actually given to either the narrator or the reader.  Certainly, the suggestion is there, but the “clues” allowing us to believe that it is indeed him are as flimsy as the clues that led the narrator to believe that she was the poison from which the father was running.  Even more curious – and telling – is that the narrator finds comfort in the dead man’s writing.  She perceives them as an indication that he was in fact at peace with himself, that in his own way escaping from their family and living a clearly indigent lifestyle, was the more desirable option.  For the narrator, this is an answer and closure, and neat and tidy and complete, given that the man is dead.

Eiríksdóttir’s story is written rather flatly, as though directly composed by the narrator without a care for flair, wit or ingenuity.  It comes across as told to, say, a diary, or a psychologist, or perhaps even a friend.  The language and tone is confessional and unburdening, giving the impression that once the telling is complete, the pain will be too.  This reinforces the murky nature of the dead man and adds further complexity as to whether he was really her father or not.

And I suppose, in the end, does it matter?  A girl well on her way to catastrophe, narrowly avoids prison and prostitution (or the potentially speedier destruction of a drug overdose), instead receives satisfaction and contentment.  And all it took was a dead man rotting in a cargo container.  And I suppose I can understand why she considers it a fair bargain.

Author Kristín Eiríksdóttir
Title Holes in People
Translator Christopher Burawa
Nationality Icelandic
Publisher The Dalkey Archive Press

Please visit the Short Story Reviews page to see all of the available reviews.

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