The Scent of Light

Kristjana Gunnars
Coach House Books ($25.95)

by Dashiel Carrera                            

Kristjana Gunnars’s The Scent of Light is a work unyielding in its sensuality, uniquely attuned to the slippery nature of reading in the Information Age. In five autofictive novellas, Gunnars waxes on everything from her homelands of Iceland and Canada to train track romance, weaving together images of ice fishing, silk clouds, and half-eaten tomatoes into a portrait of Icelandic-Canadian diaspora.

In its totality, the omnibus is an unmistakable member of a lineage of experimental feminist literature that extends from Marguerite Duras’s The Lover to Carole Maso’s AVA. For these works, in which no overt central plot governs the order of scenes and images, fragments are given room to breathe, forming a tangle of memory and thought free from the tyranny of a cumulative, climactic, Aristotelian whole. An extractive reading of The Scent of Light—one which assumes the purpose of literature is to be a conduit for ideas—is doomed to return with nothing in hand. Gunnars seems less concerned with ideas themselves than with the interstitial spaces between them, alternatingly suffusing her stories with descriptions of diaphanous landscapes and thoughtful interrogations of the readerly experience, only to cut away when our interest is piqued most. With these cutaways, Gunnars also prompts us to consider our own thinking rather than merely digest her own.

We have to take breaks when we read novels. But when we put down a book for a moment to check email, or take a walk, or feed the cat, the lingering experience of what we’ve just read colors our perception of the world around us. I often found myself so lost in Gunnars’s luscious descriptions of flora, the ponderosas that “stand spread with upward-bending limbs as if conducting the dreams I dream in the mist,” that I could not go on a walk without my eyes wandering to the branches that wind my Toronto neighborhood, wondering what dream they may be reaching for—all of which could be dismissed as tangent to the text itself, but which, when I return to The Scent of Light, have changed my understanding of the book and the world around me.  

Despite the seeming ubiquity of experiences like this, few works of fiction appear to be written with them in mind. The Scent of Light, however, is different. Gunnars draws us in with provocative images, koans, and questions (I imagine a text which refuses to play its own game,” “Nothing existed but the tiny rippling waves on the lake and the bulky mountains,” “I am a stranger in my own memory”), only to send us spiraling back into our own thoughts with another dinkus or block of white space. In doing so, the book creates space for life to leak between its pages, illuminating the world around us with a lingering consciousness of the readerly experience.

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