The Manchester Review

Hallgrimur Helgason, reviewed by James Watts

Upon seeing the phrase “A Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning” on my ticket, I instantly re-read it out of confusion. Would this event instruct me how to simply clean a house, or did clean have more sinister connotations? In all honesty, neither possibility interested me. A little research filled me with delight when I discovered that the event title was in fact the title of a novel which Hallgrimur Helgason, the listed speaker, had recently written.

I am the fourth person to sit down in the small, somewhat intimate venue, which is nicely populated by the time the event started. Helgason, of Icelandic origin, is introduced by a warm compere who gives a succinct outline of his latest novel, only available via Amazon Kindle currently. The novel is a comedic yet profound look at the adventures of the hitman Tomislav Bokšić, better known by the fusion ‘Toxic’. ‘Toxic’, a prolific member of the Croatian mafia, kills his 67th victim in the novel but later discovers he killed the wrong man. Consequently he flees to Croatia and steals the identity of a televangelist who goes by the name Father Friendly. What ensues is a comic journey as Toxic finds himself preaching daily on television in place of this priest and the novel raises the question whether ‘a bad man can become good’, to quote Helgason. As someone who had never heard of Helgason before tonight, let alone read any of his works, I still feel very much part of the evening and not lacking in knowledge in any way.

Through the interview we learn how this novel was unlike any other. “A Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning” is Helgason’s first novel written in English. His previous novels and literary works were all written in Icelandic and then translated into English and other languages. Helgason describes the process of writing a novel in a language which wasn’t his mother tongue frustrating, but ultimately hugely satisfying and worthwhile. As an individual, Helgason comes across as hugely affable and it comes as no surprise that the novel is comedic given that his general manner was light-hearted and jovial. The passion with which he reads a passage of the novel makes it come alive and gives an insight to the talents that Helgason holds. He even treats us to one of his poems, displaying his literary talent that extends beyond merely fiction. Helgason also reveals how through his protagonist Toxic, he had the chance to look at his native country through a foreigner’s eyes, as if he’d never been there. He then explains how this wasn’t as difficult as some might think, because ‘as a writer you always feel like a foreigner in your own country’.

As a novice to the reviewing scene and (shamefully) the Manchester Literature Festival as a whole, I was intrigued as to how I would find the event, and whether I’d define it as enjoyable or worthwhile. Upon leaving the Anthony Burgess Foundation, I begin thinking about Toxic and to my surprise, soon find that he has already established a little place in my mind, not too far away from some of my other favourite fictional characters. Before tonight, I was wondering what novel next to read. I think I’ve now decided.


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