Jóanes Nielsen’s The Brahmadells is a sweeping novel that spans the start of the 1800s to the new millennium, chronicling the lives of a connected group of people residing in the port town, Tórshavn, the capital of the Faroe Islands. The novel follows the Geil family, nicknamed Brahmadella, along with their travails, loves, enemies, livelihoods, and downfalls through the generations. The history of Faroes forms the milieu for the characters’ dramas—the measles epidemic, the agitations for independence, and the anti-union violence. Sometimes characters are caught up in action, and other times important historical events remain merely background as Nielsen focuses on the individual.

Family and history are the obvious themes in this book but a third current runs through, tying the other two together in a troubling fashion: “There is hardly any other country, or indeed any metropolis, in which mental diseases are so frequent in proportion to the number of people as on the Faroes.” Readers can trace the genealogy of madness within the Brahmadella clan, including the hot-tempered Nils Tvibur, the disturbed and accusatory Betta Geil, and the brutish Hjartvard—all culminating in the violent climax of the book. Here, in Jóanes Nielsen’s Faroe Islands, scars are a type of curse, and wounds inflicted can ripple outward to hurt people long after both perpetrator and victim have passed. And yet, far from being a pessimistic condemnation of human cruelty and the tyranny of blood, The Brahmadells provides readers with moments of compassion and tenderness, sometimes in surprising ways: a 19th century father refuses to forsake his homosexual son, a soldier saves a woman from assault at the hands of Danish officers, and a young boy with a medical disfigurement is taken in by a reclusive, sun-worshiping farmer.

And The Brahmadells is exceptional in that few contemporary works of Faroese literature exist in English. Translator Kerri A. Pierce does a wonderful rendition of the almost saga-like tone of The Brahmadells, bringing the large, century-spanning cast of characters to life. An unforgettable masterpiece, one can only hope that this novel heralds a wellspring of translations from a land often overlooked.

Open Letter.

—Review by J.T. Mahany