The Greenhouse: a rose by any other name

greenhouse22-year-old Arnljótur is leaving Iceland. Adrift following his mother’s untimely death, he has persuaded a remote European monastery to permit him to resurrect their once-famous rose garden. He hopes to find himself in solitary horticulture, far from the poor soil of the lava fields and the pressure of his father’s expectations. But no matter how far he goes, Arnljótur will find that the world is full of unavoidable responsibilities. 

The Greenhouse was like sinking into a nice warm bath after the unpleasant waters of Last Rituals. An intimate coming-of-age novel about grief, responsibility, commitment and finding yourself in unexpected places, it’s not a typical reading choice for me, but I rather enjoyed it for its beautiful prose and quirky narrative.

Arnljótur is both highly aware of and oddly distant from his body, as if its sensations and actions sometimes take him by surprise. In particular – and unsurprisingly, given his age – he is hyper-aware of his response to women and ill-equipped to understand them. The narrative frequently dips into his (often hilarious) reflections on his physical urges and what might come of them. Given his limited command of foreign languages, this makes his interactions with the women he encounters on his journey to the monastery rich with opportunities for amusement.

His memories of the past are also heavily mediated. His recall is almost cinematic, playing with camera angles and adding details that make a scene feel more real to him (this being the case, Father Thomas’s tendency to offer pastoral advice through classic movie recommendations is perhaps uniquely suited to him).

The combination of conscious physicality and managed memory is odd, not least as it becomes apparent that the two intertwine. Arnljótur is deliberate in capturing details of his experiences in order to remember them. If he stops paying attention, the moment will be lost.

He also has a tendency to categorise things – including people – to make sense of them (such as repeated references to Anna only as ‘the mother of the child’ – not even ‘my‘ child – or ‘the geneticist’). This can feel dehumanising, but I think it echoes his odd sense of self-awareness, and perhaps his longing to be able to identify himself so clearly. His focus on minutiae has led some readers to suggest that Arnljótur (like his twin, Jósef) falls somewhere on the autism spectrum; it’s perfectly plausible, but remains implicit rather than a plot point.

Awkward and intimate, I found the novel endearing and amusing by turns. Peppered with running jokes (largely at Arnljótur’s expense), the narrative feels as affectionate as the warm-hearted strangers who welcome him on each step of his journey. I couldn’t help but feel that there were additional nuances hidden beneath the surface of the novel – it’s hard not to dig into the fairytale aspects in particular, present throughout if most explicit in the episode in the inn in the forest –  but I chose to enjoy this as presented.

My only real criticism is that the ending felt rather abrupt and unsatisfying – I wanted more closure, or at least a sense of more completion on the journey. Instead, it felt we left Arnljótur on the brink of a new journey, unclear where it would lead or what his choices would be.