Coming of Age in Tórshavn: A Review of William Heinesen’s The Tower at the Edge of the World

It is a rare and precious thing to read your way through an author’s life. Rarer still for an author to take a stand and say «I am ending my career with this book.» It is a statement, to be sure – one that implies they have a work they feel is worthy to put a full stop to their writing life and allow them to move on, to the real world and beyond.

William Heinesen is the type of writer whose life deserves a definite bookend. He is an impressive figure: working in any manner of writing you would care to mention, while also dabbling in painting and composition, he is the read deal Renaissance Man. There is also tell that he was considered for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1981, but he wrote to the Committee personally to ask them to take his name off of whatever list they may have had. All this, and he is still hardly known in the English speaking world– a literary footnote, a tricky quiz question. Why is that?

What we face, here, is the unfortunate effects of the geographic lottery. Heinesen is a native of Tórshavn, the capital of the Faroe Islands, a small archipelago North of Scotland that is an autonomous country belonging to Denmark. Indeed, Heinesen is probably the most prominent literary figure to have ever come from Tórshavn, and he produced art his whole life. Probably best known as a writer, he spins socially conscious narratives that are set entirely around the area where he grew up. His novels were generally about the need for community, and the joys of coexisting with others, told with a bent for social realism.

There is one, though, that is written in an altogether more cerebral style. Heinesen’s last novel: The Tower at the End of the World. Heinesen wrote it in 1976, still some 15 years before his death, but always intended for it to be his final novel, describing it as «a poetic mosaic about earliest childhood.» However, when one reads it, it’s impossible to separate it from the finality that it represents. In its sparse narrative, it isn’t merely a celebration of the beginning of life, but a gentle nod towards the fact that all good things must pass, and that while we have been on this mortal coil, everything has shaped us.

So let’s start at the beginning, as is tradition. We are told of the tower. Before the beginning and the end there was the tower; it sees us off as we come into this world and greets us when we leave it. From there, the book is told in short vignettes that are confusing at first, but become increasingly coherent. Events are primarily understood through vague sensory recollection. New words are put in italics or quotes; in an early section when the protagonist’s mother is said to be ill, the grandmother describes her as «radiant,» after which the narrator constantly uses that word to refer to their mother. There is a joy of discovery, of learning that penetrates everything about these early sections. Never before have I read something that so captures the feeling of being a child surrounded by new information. We will all have had our own childhoods, so to have found even the slightest kernel of something that may be universal is quite the achievement. The child is in the book, but the child is real, the child is one of us.

The sections become longer, more clearly tied together as the story progresses. We are shown the same characters as they age, all the way to eighteen. A particularly wonderful section shows our protagonist’s first experience of romance. A cliche subject, to be sure, but isn’t that an awfully cynical way of looking at it? Heinesen does not write a simple coming of age tale, even though putting one’s finger on exactly what makes it different can prove difficult. Coming of age in Tórshavn sounds like a dream, like the most perfect memory.

Memory. Memory. Memory. You can say it over and over, but you can’t capture what that means with six simple letters. Heinesen doesn’t use the word to any great effect but captures every nuance it holds in little over 202 pages (beautifully translated by W. Glyn Jones). It is poetic, yes, but it is so much more than someone considering and retelling their childhood. It is the type of reminiscence that can only come with some distance – told in the past tense but as vivid as if one were still there.

It feels like there may be some flaws when reading it, though. For instance, the segments are so short and fleeting sometimes, that you wonder why they were included at all. In the moment, one may be inclined to complain, but those small sections likely aren’t what will stay with you when you talk about the book. You will remember Amaldus, you will remember Hannibal, you will remember Merrit, and you will remember how their lives intersected so fleetingly, but those intersections were happy, and surely represent the best of youth.

The Tower At the Edge of the World represents an end for Heinesen. He commemorates this by going back to the beginning, which he articulates quite wonderfully. It isn’t rose tinted, it is merely operating along the same lines as our memories actually do. It features the types of observations that can only come once distance has been put between the event and the writing, for the wheels of memory to start turning. The best writer to ever come out of Tórshavn shows us why he is known as such, as well as why now might be the best time to stop. He has thought on his entire life, and he has laid his memory bare; there is no need to use it anymore.

Theo Howe