Álfgrímur is an orphan boy who has always known life in a simple turf cottage with his foster parents, Björn of Brekkukot, whom he calls Grandfather, and Grandmother. His grandfather lives a life of integrity, with no interest in ambition. Words are so important in their household, Álfgrímur explains, that they are only spoken to hide things.
Álfgrímur grows up with his only ambition to live in his grandparents’ cottage and fish for lumpfish with his grandfather. But his grandmother has other ideas, so when he is old enough, he goes reluctantly off to school.
Most of this novel is an account of everyday life at Brekkukot, peopled by the peculiar residents of the grandparents’ loft, some permanently there and others passing through. These people are all good but eccentric. For example, there is the Superintendent, whom Álfgrímur as a boy thinks is the superintendent of the entire city of Reykjavic but turns out to be in charge of the public toilets at the harbor.
Hanging on the wall of their neighbor Kristín’s cottage is the picture of a young man. When Álfgrímur asks about him, his grandparents answer “He was a nice little boy, that Georg,” Kristín’s son. But Georg is now Garðar Holm, a famous Icelandic opera singer. Garðar Holm seldom comes home. When he does and his patron schedules a concert, he never appears, but he does take an interest in Álfgrímur. Álfgrímur can sing and he wants to learn to sing “one true note.”
In this novel, Laxness is interested in exploring the tension between fame and obscurity, but he is also interested in the importance of morality and honest dealing. Serious as its intent is and primitive as are the characters’ surroundings, this is not at all a grim novel. It is told with a wry and ironic sense of humor and is full of colorful characters. With Laxness, you can be sure that there is plenty going on beneath the surface of things.