Review 1834: Last Rituals

Thóra Gudmundsdóttir, a Reykyavik attorney, receives an unusual request. A German university student has been found murdered under unusual circumstances, and his family isn’t satisfied with the police investigation. Although the murderer has supposedly been arrested, the family doesn’t think he did it. They want Thóra to work with their German representative, Matthew Reich, to see what she can turn up.

Thóra soon learns that the student, Harald Gottlieb, was obsessed with Medieval witch hunts. His apartment is decorated with bizarre artifacts from his grandfather’s collection of torture instruments and folk spells. His own body is covered with piercings and markings as well as embedded objects. His thesis is supposed to be a comparison of witch burnings in Germany and Iceland, but Thóra and Matthew find his research more scattered.

Despite his appearance and apparently rowdy behavior, Harald seems to have been well-liked by his fellow students although not by all the faculty. He has founded a historical society centered around witchcraft practices, and the members of it all give each other alibis for the night of the murder—they were all out clubbing together.

Although because of its macabre subject matter and occasional creepiness, this mystery seems as if it is going to be fairly grim, I would place it closer to the cozy category. We get to know Thóra’s kids and find a source of humor in Thóra’s surly receptionist Bella (although I thought Sigurdardóttir could have skipped the fat jokes). Also interesting is Thóra’s growing relationship with Matthew.

This is a pretty good mystery, too. I enjoyed this novel and will look for the next one.

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Review 1724: The Mist

Here’s another book for RIP XVI.

I didn’t realize until just now that The Mist is the third book in a trilogy. Having not read the other two books, I’m not sure how much it would have affected my reading if I had read them.

Detective Hulda Hermannsdóttir is back at her desk after a traumatic experience. She is having trouble focusing, however, on the case of a missing young woman. Then she is called out of the office to investigate bodies found on a remote farm in the east of Iceland.

The story goes back three months to show what happened to Hulda and on the farm. Erla and her husband Einar are snowbound at the farm just before Christmas when a mysterious man appears at their door, claiming to be separated from his friends on a hiking trip. Erla is immediately suspicious of him, and he certainly acts suspiciously. But Einar invites him to stay until the snowstorm stops.

This novel is complicated and at times suspenseful, but I had some problems with it. First, it’s obvious almost immediately what’s wrong with Hulda’s teenage daughter. Second, most of the action of the novel is triggered when a character receives a letter. The next obvious step would have been for him to take it to the police, whom he is already working with. But does he? Of course not. There wouldn’t be much of a story if he did, but novelists should avoid such silly pitfalls.

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Review 1603: The Glass Woman

It’s November 1686 in Stykkishólmur, Iceland. After an earthquake, the ice splits open and disgorges a woman’s body.

Three months earlier, Rósa and her mother are near starvation after the death of her father Magnús, the Bishop of Skálholt. He could have been a powerful and wealthy man, but he preferred to give away all he owned. Despite his generosity, no one is willing to give a single thing to help the women except Páll, Rósa’s childhood friend.

Then Rósa’s mother hears that Jón Eiriksson, a powerful man from a village in the north, is looking for a wife. There are weird rumors about the death of his first wife, but with her mother coughing blood, Rósa decides to marry him.

When she arrives in Stykkishólmur, however, Jón seems to have become unexpectedly stern. He hardly spends any time with her and wants her to stay away from the village. The loft in the house is locked, and he tells her to stay out of it. The villagers seem to be afraid of him and his apprentice, Pétur. Rósa, alone night after night, thinks she hears something moving in the loft and imagines someone moving through her rooms at night.

This Icelandic version of the Bluebeard story is highly atmospheric, and I was very interested in it. However, in some ways I found it unsatisfying. I didn’t like the ending and thought that the situation could have been cleared up easily with the truth. Also, the character of Páll is undefined. At first, it seems he will be a minor character, but he ends up being more important, and as such, should have a personality. Overall, though, I found the customs and beliefs of the time and place interesting, and I liked Rósa.

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Review 1576: Smile of the Wolf

Best of Ten!
During a long winter night, Kjaran, a skjald, or poet, tells his host, Gunnar, about stories of a ghost on the farm of the recently deceased Hrapp Osmundsson. Gunnar, a Viking who retired to a farm and family, decides they should go kill the ghost.

At Hrapp Osmundsson’s farm, they find a ghost and challenge him to a battle. Gunnar kills him, and only then do they realize he is a neighbor, Erik Haraldsson, dressed as a ghost. He had been conspiring with Vigdis, the widow, to scare the neighbors off their lands so they could take them.

According to Icelandic law, the death would call for blood money paid to the man’s relatives, perhaps followed by a feud. But Vigdis urges the men not to report the death because of the shame to Erik of his deception. To not report the death is a worse crime than the killing, but Kjaran and Gunnar agree.

They soon learn what a mistake they’ve made, because Vigdis comes to Gunnar’s house and demands he put aside his wife and children and marry her. Gunnar refuses, and Vigdis begins making trouble that results in a feud and outlawry for Kjaran.

This gripping tale set in 10th century Iceland is modeled after the Icelandic sagas. Kjaran tells his story to someone who remains unidentified until the end. It is beautifully written, a memorable novel that is heart-breaking and powerful.

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Review 1484: The Sealwoman’s Gift

With one foot in the world of myth and saga and the other based in a true historic event, The Sealwoman’s Gift should have been a great book. Sadly, it is not quite so good as I expected. It has an interesting beginning and a touching end but tends to drag sometimes in the middle.

One morning in 1627, Oddrún comes to Ásta, saying she’s had a vision of men crossing their island to attack them. However, Oddrún thinks she’s a sealwoman and only one of her visions has been known to come true, so no one pays attention. Shortly thereafter, their small Westman Island, part of Iceland, is attacked by Barbary pirates. Almost everyone is killed or enslaved.

This is Sally Magnusson’s imagining of a true event the remains one of the most significant in Icelandic history. Out of a population of about 40,000, many were killed and 400 taken. Among those taken are Ásta and her husband, the minister Ólafur, and all but one of their children. Ásta, hugely pregnant, begins giving birth on the ship, and one of my complaints is that, with all the flashbacks and background information, it takes from chapter one until the end of chapter five before she actually has the baby. I have to say that this seemed interminable, and Magnusson could have figured out a better way to handle the background information. Finally, they arrive in Algiers.

Ásta and Ólafur and two of their children are bought by a powerful trader named Cilleby, while their oldest son Egill, is purchased by the Pasha and never heard from again. Ólafur is surprised to be given no duties, but after a few months Cilleby dispatches him with a safe passage back to Denmark to try to obtain ransom for Denmark’s Icelandic citizens.

Ásta, who has been a dreamy woman with a love of Icelandic sagas, remains as a seamstress, trying to bring up her remaining two children and listening to the stories told in the evening by members of the harem.

During this period, Magnusson might have tried to more fully imagine life in Algiers, but this world is not fully realized. Or, she could have stuck with Ólafur on his journey back to Denmark and in his years of fund raising to free the captives. But she is more interested in Ásta and has her develop a relationship with Cilleby. I found this the least likely and least interesting part of the book.

Still, I was glad I finished the book, because the story eventually ends in Iceland, which Magnusson depicts more convincingly. The ending was touching and redeemed the novel quite a bit.

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Day 996: World Light

Cover for World LightAs much as I have enjoyed other novels by Halldór Laxness, I just couldn’t get into World Light. I think it was its allegorical qualities that put me off, as that is not my genre.

Olaf Karason is a foster child who has been brought up on a remote Icelandic farm. He is so badly treated there that in his teenage years he takes to his bed as an invalid. He is sadly aware of his own history, in which his father abandoned him, and his mother sent him away in a bag. He hears she is now doing well, but she shows no interest in him.

Olaf has a spiritual turn of mind and believes he has experienced some knowledge of God. He also wants to be a poet and is hungry for knowledge. But to the people surrounding him, this all just makes him seem more peculiar. He is almost ridiculously innocent, too, and because of his innocence and his hunger for love, he keeps thrusting himself into situations where he is misunderstood.

While Olaf is on the farm, I stayed with him, but more than 100 pages into the book, he loses his home and the parish sends a man to fetch him. That man, Reimar, takes him to a farm where he is miraculously cured before taking him to his destination in a convalescent home. But Olaf is cured, so no one knows what to do with him.

This section seemed to begin an entirely different book, and here it started to lose me. Because I felt as if I didn’t understand something, I began to read the Introduction, something I usually don’t do before finishing a novel, if then. Unfortunately, that told me enough about what was coming for Olaf that I developed a sense of dread. I struggled on but finally decided to stop.

Laxness’s novel is apparently an indictment of all the forces in the world against gentler souls. Certainly, the social climate and behaviors he depicts are brutal. As with some of his other novels, I had to keep reminding myself that it was set in the 20th century, because it seems to be several centuries earlier.

I hope my review doesn’t stop anyone from reading Laxness. Generally, I find him wonderful, with a keen, dark sense of humor. If this doesn’t sound like your kind of book, try Independent People (my personal favorite of the ones I’ve read) or Iceland’s Bell.

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Day 657: The Fish Can Sing

Cover for The Fish Can SingÁlfgrímur 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.

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Day 520: Iceland’s Bell

Cover for Iceland's BellIceland’s Bell is a curious novel. Most of the characters are based on actual people who were involved in court trials in Iceland and Denmark at the turn of the 18th century. One way to look at this novel is as the Icelandic version of Bleak House.

The novel begins with Jón Hreggviðsson, a disreputable farmer. He has been sentenced to a whipping for making a bawdy joke about the Danish king. While he is awaiting punishment, the king’s hangman has him help take down Iceland’s bell.

Although Iceland’s bell does not feature much in the novel, it is a symbol for the treatment of Iceland by its Danish overlords. The novel makes clear how impoverished the nation is and how the Danes bleed it dry. Iceland’s bell is at the time Iceland’s only national treasure. It has hung for centuries and is rung for court hearings and before executions. After a war with Sweden, the Danish king orders the bell to be removed so it can be melted down to help rebuild Copenhagen.

Jón Hreggviðsson has his beating and then goes off drinking with some men, including the hangman. On the way home the drunken men get lost in a bog. According to Jón’s story, when he wakes up the next morning, he’s lost his hat and his horse, so he takes the ones that are nearby. These turn out to belong to the hangman, who is later found dead in a nearby stream. A few days later, Jón is accused of his murder. We never find out if he murdered the hangman or even if the hangman was murdered, but thus begins a series of trials that last 32 years.

The day after Jón returns home from his beating, two other important characters enter the novel. Arnas Arnæus is a famous Icelandic scholar and a professor at the University of Copenhagen who comes to Jón’s farm with a group of eminent Icelanders searching for old manuscripts. Among the trash in Jón’s mother’s bed, Arnæus find several pages from a Skálda, a manuscript of Eddaic poems. Arnæus is trying to rescue Iceland’s heritage from destruction by searching out these old manuscripts. Having discovered the fragment of Skálda, he considers it the jewel of his collection.

With Arnæus is the bishop, his wife, and her sister Snæfríður, the beautiful young girl known as Iceland’s Sun, daughter of the magistrate. Snæfríður, we learn later, is in love with Arnæus. Arnæus leaves Iceland, promising Snæfríður to return for her. However, he soon marries an elderly rich Danish woman to save his precious manuscripts from being claimed for debt.

When Arnæus returns to Iceland years later, it is as a representative of the Danish king. He comes with the mission to end some of the Danish abuses of the Icelandic people. But his reversal of some of Snæfríður’s father’s decisions takes the perversity of their personal affairs to the international level.

Iceland’s Bell is written with the stark and cynical humor I encountered in Independent People. Laxness brutally depicts the state of the Icelandic people and their diminishment by the Danes. This novel is dark and comical at the same time—and beautifully written.

Day 456: Independent People

Cover for Independent PeopleBest Book of the Week!

Who knew that Iceland had a Nobel Prize winner for literature? I didn’t even notice with his novel in my hands, given to me by my Uncle Fred last summer. I just put it in my pile of books to be read. If I’d known it was so good, I would have paid more attention.

Oddly, I seem to be inadvertently in an islands phase. This is the second book I’ve reviewed recently about Iceland (see my review of Burial Rites), and I have another I will soon review about New Zealand, The Luminaries. (See my review of The Bone People.)

Bjartur Jónsson has worked for the Bailiff’s family for 18 years to earn enough money to buy a small farm and some sheep. He is determined from now on to be beholden to no one else, to be independent. Even though his holding is said to be cursed by the fiend Kolumkilli (Saint Columba) and the witch Gunnvor, Bjartur is not superstitious and refuses to cast a stone on Gunnvor’s cairn to appease her when he first crosses the ridge into his valley. He is determined to make a place for himself and his bride-to-be Rósa on his own efforts.

On his wedding night he has an unpleasant surprise. Someone has already been with Rósa, he claims. At first we’re not certain whether he is being perverse, but one night when Bjartur is out searching for a lost sheep (that Rósa ate out of desperation), Rósa dies in childbirth only a few months after the wedding. Bjartur finds the baby on the edge of death, protected by his bitch sheep dog. Bjartur is a singular character—a lover of the old sagas and a poet, obstinate to the point of stupidity, untrusting, ornery, thinking mostly of his sheep—but he immediately loves this little girl and names her Ásta Sólillja (beloved sun lily).

Although Bjartur soon marries Finna, the woman who comes to care for Ásta Sólillja, and we get to know her and her mother and the couple’s three sons, it is the characters of Bjartur and Ásta Sólillja that dominate the story. Bjartur is so heedless of anything but his own ideas that he refuses anything resembling a gift, even if it would keep his family healthy, and Ásta Sólillja is innocent and gentle as the little flower he calls her.

The time frame of this novel is vague, so we are startled two thirds of the way through to see references to World War I, for the life of these Icelandic farmers seems no different than it would have been in the Middle Ages. Laxness describes a hard, grim existence, where babies die of illness and malnutrition, where Finna lies in bed ill for weeks every winter, where the family lives in one room full of fleas.

This story is not a bleak one, however; rather it is comic, sad, and moving. The novel centers on a rift between Ásta Sólillja and Bjartur. In anger, he throws her out. Although he repents his action, he won’t admit it and stubbornly waits for her to come ask for forgiveness. Well, she will never ask.

Slowly, things begin going wrong for Bjartur. He has already lost his second wife and his oldest son because of obstinacy about a cow. His youngest son Nonni, a brilliantly drawn character whose mother told him he would “sing for the world” (and I think is meant to be Laxness himself) disappears from the novel when he gets a chance to go to America at a young age. Soon Bjartur is left with only his middle son Gvendur, a young man not given to introspection who only knows how to “keep on doing things.”

Along with the story of Bjartur’s family, we learn a bit about the history of Icelandic politics and economy, but the novel centers on this all too human and oddly endearing family. If you decide to read this poetic novel, I think you will have a wonderful and surprising experience. It looks like several of Laxness’s works are out in paperback. I’m going to be buying more.

Day 453: Burial Rites

Cover for Burial RitesBest Book of the Week!

Based on the true story of the last woman to be executed in Iceland, Burial Rites is an unusual and original novel.

Agnes Magnúsdóttir has been found guilty of the murder of her employer, Natan Ketílsson, and another man when the novel begins. There is no doubt that Fridrik Sigurdsson committed the act, but Agnes and her fellow servant Sigrídur Gudmundsdóttir have also been found guilty on little more evidence than that they were present at the scene. The younger, prettier Sigrídur, who was Natan’s mistress and Fridrik’s fiancée, is being considered for a pardon, but Agnes is not.

Because Iceland does not apparently have facilities for housing criminals at the time, the District Commissioner Björn Blöndal decides to lodge Agnes until her execution at Kórnsa, the farm of the District Officer of Vatnsdalur, Jón Jónsson. Agnes has requested that the young Reverend Thorvardur Jónsson, newly ordained, supervise her spiritual welfare.

Jón Jónsson’s wife and daughter are horrified to learn they are to have a convicted murderess in their house. Reverend Jónsson, known as Tóti, is confused, feeling insufficiently experienced for the task and unaware that he has already met Agnes.

We first see Agnes on her way to Kórnsa. She has been kept in a storeroom, living in filth and seldom fed, since her conviction. When she arrives at the farm, she seems almost subhuman, grimy and greasy and so thirsty that she gulps down some dirty dishwater given her to wash in. Slowly, through her hard work and unobjectionable demeanor and their own basic decency, the family comes to believe Agnes may not be guilty of the crime.

Although the focus of this novel is the life on the farm and the evolving relationship between Agnes and the family of Jón Jónsson, we eventually learn the truth about the crime, as Agnes confides it to Tóti and the family.

Kent’s gift is for depicting the hard life of 19th century Iceland—the merciless fate of itinerant servants, the prevalence of gossip and superstition, the brutal conditions and physically demanding work. Kent also describes the mental landscape of Agnes, her memories, thoughts, and nighttime dreams, and less frequently those of Margrét, Jón Jónsson’s wife, and of Tóti.

This novel is evocatively written in beautiful, spare prose. It tells a heartbreaking and haunting story.