Journey Home

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In this beautifully crafted novel, Icelandic writer Olaf Olafsson tells the moving story of a woman who, in the remaining months of her life, undertakes an extraordinary emotional journey.

For years, Disa has lived a quiet life, managing an English country-house hotel with her close companion, Anthony. Having learned she is terminally ill, Disa decides it is time to travel back to the village in Iceland where she was born. With enormous sensitivity, Olafsson carries the reader ...

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In this beautifully crafted novel, Icelandic writer Olaf Olafsson tells the moving story of a woman who, in the remaining months of her life, undertakes an extraordinary emotional journey.

For years, Disa has lived a quiet life, managing an English country-house hotel with her close companion, Anthony. Having learned she is terminally ill, Disa decides it is time to travel back to the village in Iceland where she was born. With enormous sensitivity, Olafsson carries the reader with Disa on her quietly heroic journey. As she goes north, events she has spent most of her life trying to forget are slowly revealed. Turned away by her mother, her young fiancé murdered by the Nazis, Disa was left to find refuge as a cook in a wealthy household that contained within it the seeds of both sexual and political violence. The consequences have marked her forever; only now can she attempt to find a resolution.

A rich and moving portrait of a woman by an exceptionally gifted writer.

About the Author:
Olaf Olafsson was born in Reykjavik, Iceland, in 1962 and studied at Brandeis University, where he received his degree in physics. He is the author of several novels, including Absolution, which was published by Pantheon in 1994. The founder and former president and CEO of Sony Interactive Entertainment, Inc., Olafsson is now Vice Chairman of Time Warner Digital Media. He lives in New York City.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
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Olaf Olafsson has perfectly captured a woman's voice in his haunting second novel. Disa, a character eerily reminiscent of the butler in Kazua Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day, is a successful, attentive restaurateur and proprietress at an English country hotel. When she learns she has but a year to live, the news serves as the catalyst for a final trip home to Iceland -- a journey she has postponed for 20 years.

For nearly two decades, Disa's life has revolved around the hotel: "the beginning of summer: bright days, open windows and white sheets flapping on the line." But when she was younger, in the 1930s, she first fled Iceland for England to avoid the "arrogant" glare of her judgmental mother and to pursue her passion for cooking -- a talent that was once an escape but has become a calling. There she meets the love of her life, Jakob, a German Jew whose fate is sealed when he returns home to rescue his parents. Brokenhearted, Disa returns home herself to work as a cook for a wealthy family, remaining estranged from her mother. In a powerfully evocative scene, she watches an injured swan try to lift itself off the water, instead crashing onto the road, mirroring her own efforts to take flight.

Traveling homeward now for the last time, Disa's mind replays the story of her life: her missteps, the causes of her emotional detachment, and the price that love has cost her. For Disa, hope has led only to self-deception, and as she straightforwardly prepares to face death, her rigorous honesty is an inspiration to behold. (Winter 2001 Selection)

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The cool undercurrents of history shiver the surface of this serene fiction set in England and Iceland after WWII. Twenty years after the war, Icelandic migr Adisa ("Disa") Jonsdottir is a successful, Elizabeth Davidesque restaurateur, manager of Ditton Hall, an English stately home transformed into a hotel. She lives with Anthony, the local squire, in a common-law arrangement and has assembled a staff suited to her perfectionist, willful character. Into her impeccably choreographed life comes the sudden news that she is terminally ill; knowing she may have less than a year left to live, she sets out to visit Iceland one last time. On her travels, a series of flashbacks bring memories of her childhood in Iceland and her early culinary training in prewar London. Buried deepest in her heart is the fate of her Jewish lover, Jakob, who returns to Germany from London in 1938 to try to rescue his parents. Alone, Disa goes home to Iceland and its quasi-racist politics, where she signs on as a cook for the well-to-do Haraldssons, whose troubled adult son has recently returned from Germany under a cloud. Olafsson (Absolution) writes in a spare but moving English, though sometimes Disa describes her recipes with more richness than the characters in her lives. Perhaps too reminiscent of Kazuo Ishiguro's butler in Remains of the Day, Disa weaves her own spell in Olafsson's accomplished novel, saving the tale from melodrama with her calm self-possession. Agent, Gloria Loomis. (Nov.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
In this well-crafted novel, Disa leads a serene life in England as the co-owner of a small hotel, where she shares a passion for cooking and nature with her partner, Anthony. When Disa is diagnosed with a fatal illness, she travels back to Iceland, revealing an unsettled past. The daughter of a doctor, she left her small village to be educated in Reykjavik. Disa soon alienated her mother by choosing a career as a chef and falling in love with Jacob, a German Jew. Disa and Jacob share a passionate, bohemian life in the English countryside until he returns to Germany to help his parents escape the Holocaust. Waiting for Jacob, Disa works in the house of an influential family and is swept into painful and startling events. Olafsson, a gifted writer (Absolution, o.p.), smoothly moves the story between past and present. Disa is not always likable but is always believable, and though the novel starts simply, it unfolds as an intricate tale of a strong and complex woman. Highly recommended.--Cathleen A. Towey, Port Washington P.L., NY Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
Brigitte Frase
Soulful and thoughtful . . . An impressively mature and wide-ranging book, both geographically and emotionally . . . He gives his protagonist and us enough sensuous pleasures to get us through the hard stuff . . .
New York Times Book Review
New Yorker
This unsettline novel asks, Can we absolve ourselves of our own crimes, real or imagined?...Olafsson's understatement allows the tragedy to build until it speaks finally, and devastatingly, for itself.
From the Publisher
"Soulful and thoughtful... An impressively mature and wide-ranging book, both geographically and emotionally."
The New York Times Book Review

"Luminous... Searing in its quietness, overwhelming in its intent, this novel of silence stands witness to the heroic nature of life."
Booklist (Starred Review)

"Undeniably graceful... It is vulnerability that makes The Journey Home so complete and appealing."

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780786233045
  • Publisher: Gale Group
  • Publication date: 5/28/2001
  • Series: Thorndike Press Womens Fiction Series
  • Edition description: LARGE PRINT
  • Pages: 391
  • Product dimensions: 5.72 (w) x 8.68 (h) x 1.26 (d)

Meet the Author

Olaf Olafsson

Olaf Olafsson lives in New York City.

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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. Iglanced 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.

Copyright 2000 by Olaf Olafsson Chapter One
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Reading Group Guide

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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