I was back in Winnipeg for a wedding during the long weekend in August this past summer, and while in town I was very pleased to pick up a copy of David Arnason’s new novel, Baldur’s Song. Dr. Arnason, as way of full disclosure, was my Creative Writing professor during my masters degree out there, and I considered him a bit of a mentor as I found my voice in the art of literary fiction. His wisdom, humour and generosity have stayed with me over the years and were some of the highlights of my time in Winnipeg. Baldur’s Song is his first novel since publishing the Stephen Leacock Medal-nominated King Jerry in 2001.
The book is a bildungsroman framed around the idea of an Icelandic saga. It’s set at the turn of the last century and tells the story of Baldur, an ambitious young man from the village of New Iceland in Northern Manitoba who comes to Winnipeg to make his name and fortune. While Baldur shows an aptitude for music, his real future lies in Winnipeg’s booming real estate market after he gets wrapped up with a mysterious young capitalist named Johnny Ashdown. Ashdown challenges Baldur’s sense of himself and pushes him out of his comfort zone as they chase down one big deal after another. Their exploits take Baldur from Winnipeg to Toronto and Reykjavik and back to Winnipeg again. All the while, he is haunted by his one true love, a young woman named Lara who has been a reoccurring presence in his life since childhood.
Baldur’s Song is a novel about the complexities of obligation – obligation to one’s family, to one’s roots, to one’s true love, but also to the debts one incurs while climbing the ladder of success. Baldur is a richly realized character who fights to preserve his identity in the face a rapidly changing (and increasingly competitive) world.
There’s no doubt that Dr. Arnason possesses a great deal of passion for and near fathomless knowledge of his Icelandic heritage. This novel is a great homage to those roots. But it also contains attributes that long-time readers would expect to find in his work: the humour, the light shading of postmodernism and the great sense of play that he brings to his method of storytelling. Baldur’s Song is a wonderful addition to an already impressive body of work.