Magma by Icelandic author Thora Hjörleifsdóttir is a very short but challenging read. I knew it was about an abusive relationship, but I didn’t expect it to affect me that much. I read it in almost thirty minutes, and even though I thought the ending was terrible, it made me think a lot about my past relationships. I realised that, in one way or another, women are constantly abused. We just don’t realise it at the time.
Reading Magma felt like reading the twenty-year-old Lilja’s journal. The narration is direct; there aren’t many embellishments. And I think this makes it more powerful; anyone can see that raw, pure love and that ruthless self-annihilation. From the very first pages, I felt like I was trespassing, but I couldn’t stop myself. Lilja is a nice girl, but she is madly in love. And she is ready to do anything to make this older and handsome university student happy.
After a while, the abuse begins, first with snarky comments and then it gets bigger and crueller until there are no boundaries. I felt her desperation to my bones; I know how it feels to be trapped in a vicious circle. The things we do to feel loved is crazy.
I was disappointed by the ending. I saw it coming, but still, I expected a lot more. Anyways. Magma is a powerful book, it’ll finish in no time, and it’ll make you think. I especially recommend it to younger women.
Trigger warning: Magma contains a depiction of an abusive relationship, scenes of sexual violence, and self-harm.
Twenty-year-old Lilja is in love. As a young university student, she is quickly smitten with the intelligent, beautiful young man from school who quotes Derrida and reads Latin and cooks balanced vegetarian meals. Before she even realizes, she’s moved in with him, living in his cramped apartment, surrounded by sour towels and flat Diet Cokes. As the newfound intimacy of sharing a shower and a bed fuels her desire to please her partner, his quiet and pervasive manipulations start to unravel her.
In an era of pornification, his acts of nearly imperceptible abuse continue to mount as their relationship develops. Lilja wants to hold onto him, take care of him and be the perfect lover. But in order to do so, she gradually lets go of her boundaries and concurrently starts to lose her sense of self.
With astounding clarity and restraint, Hjörleifsdóttir sheds light on the commonplace undercurrents of violence that so often go undetected in romantic relationships. She deftly illustrates the failings of our culture in recognizing symptoms of cruelty, and in powerful, poetic prose depicts the unspooling of a tender-hearted woman desperate to love well.
“A compulsive, propulsive debut about a young woman’s exploration of love and sex. In spare, harrowing prose, Thóra Hjörleifsdóttir’s narrator pulls us into the tale of her near undoing and her struggle to find her own value. It is the masterful writer who can shock us and make it ring so true.”—Lily King
“Magma is a luminous and poetic novel unlike any I have ever read. How to describe the slow escalation by which possession becomes control, and power abuse? Thóra Hjörleifsdóttir shows how and the effects are shocking and beautiful, it seethes like lava. She has created a whole new landscape for storytelling.” —John Freeman
Thora Hjörleifsdóttir has published three poetry collections with her poetry collective, Imposter Poets. She lives in Reykjavik. Magma is her first novel.
Meg Matich earned her Master of Fine Arts from Columbia University’s Creative Writing. She’s received support for her literary translation work from DAAD, the Icelandic Literature Centre (through publishers), PEN, and the Fulbright Commission. She has translated poetry into English and Icelandic for UNESCO, as a representative of Reykjavik UNESCO in Lviv, Ukraine.
Reading this book contributed to these challenges: