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
I was ashamed of being so pathetic. I beat my head against the toilet, feeling like an animal that had locked its own cage.
Barely the length of a short story, this is a compressed piece of writing that, nevertheless, manages to hit all the milestones of an abusive relationship and the breakdown of its vulnerable female narrator: her self-blame for the lack of perfection that her sort-of-boyfriend ‘deserves’; his manipulation and control; her troubled past of sexual violence and lack of self-worth; her self-harm; her increasing isolation and social anxiety.
Given the increasing number of books being published that tread the same (important) ground, this manages to articulate a not unpredictable arc with well-crafted brevity without losing impact. I wasn’t convinced by the ending (view spoiler), but the quality of the writing and the coolly analytical air made this work for me: ‘He’s peeled me like an onion. Surrounded by the leavings of my own sallow skin, I’ve dwindled to nothing, and my eyes smart.’