FAR AFIELD by Susanna Kaysen
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Armchair travelers now have an opportunity to visit the Faroes, that cluster of islands midway between Iceland and Norway, courtesy of this enchanting second novel (after Asa, As I Knew Him, 1987) about a young Harvard anthropologist and his discoveries there. Graduate student Jonathan Brand had a hard time convincing the department that his proposed Faroese village study made sense (are the Faroes really a foreign culture?), but now here he is, at the home of his one Faroese contact, Eyvindur, eating spik (whale blubber). Next comes turrur fiskur (rotten fish): part of Jonathan's yearlong sojourn will be wild gastronomic adventure (and high comedy: Kaysen is unfailingly funny about food). Jonathan rents a house in the village of Skopun and goes around taking notes, ""playing Boswell to everybody's Johnson."" The breakthrough comes when he makes a spectacle of himself emptying his septic tank; after that he becomes fast friends with the neighbors, one of the guys, helping out with sheep-catching and dock work. What fascinates Jonathan is how people so similar to himself can also be so different, so ""mired in blood""; he is thinking particularly of the ritual (in which he participates) of trapping whales at sea, then killing the beached whales with knives. This self-absorbed only child of academic parents (both sociology professors!) also makes discoveries about himself; the villagers' respect for the supernatural opens ""the door to mystery"" for Jonathan; he is no longer a prisoner of rationality. An uninvited houseguest (in the form of a second American anthropologist), a keenly awaited date with the mysterious Daniela, and already his year is up; bracing to return to his competitive consumer culture, Jonathan finds himself subtly changed for the better. Kaysen has done an impressive job of revealing both the limitations and the deep comforts of a tradition-bound way of life. In her wise, playful and affectionate portrait, these chilly northern islands become as warming as a glass of aquavit.

Pub Date: Oct. 11th, 1990
ISBN: 0679753761
Publisher: Vintage/Random House