Mostly this is a delightful book, a wonderment, but there are places it’s confusing and draggy, too. At first it really didn’t seem like it was going to come together but as the characters built on top of each other and as the fantastical elements intertwined with the reality the reader becomes aware that the book is about frauds and heros and what we believe.
Alfgrimur, an orphaned boy raised in Reykjavik, Iceland by a couple he calls his grandparents, wants to be a fisherman like his grandfather when he grows up. It’s all he’s ever wanted to be. And he listens to the magical tales and songs of the people and the church. Alfgrimur sings for the priest when the burials of the poor take place, and he learns Latin well and easily, albeit reluctantly.
A man named Garðar Hólm is the town’s hero for being a world-class singer but he never sings for the town. Instead he seems to have a very strange relationship with Alfgrimur and maybe others. A woman has a mysterious ailment which seems to be at least partly in her head. There are more than a few quirky characters visiting the grandparents in their home/ inn. But in the end Alfgrimur grows up and becomes what he chooses.
So the themes of what is real and what is fantastical, what we believe, swim around as much as any others – there is a distinct similarity to Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But The Fish Can Sing is not nearly so good as Independent People, the book that won Laxness the Nobel Prize for literature in 1955, but it’s fun, light, interesting, and well written providing a glimpse into the ways of Iceland mid 20th century (or earlier).