25 Women to Read Before You Die

Wednesday, January 7th, 2004


Walking into the Night


The Old Country

A review by Anna Godbersen

Servants in novels are often drawn with a certain moral superiority; we see them as more discrete, level-headed, and considerate than their employers. This is true of Kristjan (or Christian, as he renamed himself upon his immigration from Iceland to the States) Benediktsson, William Randolph Hearst's butler, and the hero of Olaf Olafsson's lovely and wise third novel. Like anyone worth reading about, however, he has a darker side, too, and something of a hidden past. At the beginning of Walking into the Night, Kristjan has worked for Hearst at the San Simeon estate (which he is forbidden from calling a "castle") for the better part of two decades. He spends his days catering to the old man's whims: organizing lavish meals, reading to him, protecting him from the snickers of his subordinates. He does not find these duties burdensome, however; his attentions to "the Chief" allow him to forget the family he left behind in Iceland. Wandering around in the background are Hearst's alcoholic mistress, Miss Davies, and the ghost of the mysterious Klara. Much of the novel is told in a continuous, unsent letter to his wife, Elisabet, in which he remembers various scenes from their life together and, eventually, the betrayal that altered the course of his own life. Olafsson hints at historical events and people, but Walking into the Night does not feel like an historical novel. He describes the various worlds that Kristjan inhabits in sensuous detail, and observes the emotional lives of his characters with care. The main pleasure of this book is in waiting as the hero, slowly and cautiously, reveals where he has been.

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