Tag Archives: iceland

Saga Land

Co-authored non-fiction novel about Icelandic cultural identity

I got this beautiful book from last year’s Jólabókaflóð and I have been waiting for the perfect time to read it. When is a better time than visiting Iceland? The cover is stunning with silver detailing on a turquoise cover, and despite the fact that it was pretty heavy, I absolutely did not regret lugging it with me around Scandinavia so I could enjoy it on location.

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Photo taken at the Blue Lagoon

“Saga Land” by Richard Fidler and Kári Gíslason is a non-fiction book that combines a number of forms of storytelling: retellings of some of the great Icelandic sagas, the history of one of Iceland’s most revered authors, the history of Iceland generally, Gíslason’s own experience growing up in Iceland and Fidler and Gíslason’s journey together through the indescribable landscapes of this starkly beautiful country.

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If ever there was a book to read while travelling through Iceland, this is it. I had such a fantastic time wandering the streets of Reykjavik, drinking coffee and beer in cafes and seeing the incredible scenery and history for myself. I was thrilled when I read about the Laundromat Cafe which I stopped in myself.

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We actually had an incredible tour guide doing the Golden Circle tour, a former physics teacher who had a deep wealth of knowledge about the geological features of the landscape. However, this book really augmented my experience by teaching me much more about the history and culture of this country, especially the literary history. The stop at Þingvellir National Park was particularly incredible because if I had just read the book, I don’t think I could have appreciated how overwhelming the place in between two tectonic plates is in person, and had I just visited without the book, I don’t think I would have appreciated the cultural significance of the former home of the world’s oldest surviving parliament.

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I absolutely loved Gíslason’s recollections of Reykjavik as a young boy, and his observations about how it had changed over the years. Reading about Gíslason’s interactions with Icelandic people constantly asking him when he is coming back to live were utterly heartwarming. I can completely understand how being born in Iceland would tie you there forever.

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I can see why this book was co-authored. Fidler brings a sharpness, a discerning perspective to the book that critically examines Iceland’s history through objective eyes. However, Gíslason is such a beautiful writer in his own right, I would have been satisfied with a book that was just his story and his Iceland alone. I think the nature of the book means that there is a lot of time spent peeking behind the curtain, and while I can see the value in Fidler and Gíslason’s observations of each other, I think there were times where I wished the magic had been preserved a little more.

A fantastic book that is perfectly suited to anyone visiting Iceland. I learned so much reading this book, and it added such a layer of cultural understanding during my trip.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Non Fiction, Pretty Books

Burial Rites

Hannah Kent has been causing a stir in the Australian literary scene recently, and after hearing the news that her debut novel is being turned into a film I figured I had better see what all the fuss was about. When I finished this book, the breath caught in my throat when I read this line in the acknowledgements:

And last, but never lease: thank you to Angharad, for never doubting, and for fortifying me every day, every hour.

Now, obviously this thank you was not intended for me personally, but another Angharad. However, it’s so rare to see my name in print that I was all aflutter after reading it!

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“Burial Rites” by Hannah Kent is a historical fiction novel based on a true story about a woman called Agnes sentenced to death for the murder of a man. While waiting for the sentence to be carried out, she is sent to live out her final days with the family of District Officer Jón Jónsson. Although a significant improvement on her previous location, and although Agnes sleeps with the family in the baðstofa, the welcome from the District Officer’s wife Margrét and especially her younger daughter Lauga is icy. Agnes is permitted religious counsel by the District Commissioner, and she nominates an inexperienced Assistant Reverend who is known as Tóti. As Agnes gradually tells the story of how she came to be accused of murder, Tóti, Margrét and Margrét’s older daughter Steina begin to warm to her.

This is a dark and engrossing story that I was hooked on from beginning to end. Kent has a visceral writing style and this book is like a triad of beautiful landscapes, deep dialogue and unflinching descriptions of what human bodies must do to survive. The picture Kent paints of 1800s Iceland is a bleak one with food shortages, illness and unsafe housing all competing to claim lives. I really enjoyed the way that Kent wove in observations about Icelandic culture without distracting the reader from the story. Agnes is an ambiguous but engaging character, though I think my favourite character would have to be Margrét.

I think the part about this book I enjoyed the least was probably Agnes’ retelling of what happened with Natan Ketilsson, the man she was convicted of murdering. I think that warm but cloying tension of the Jónsson family was fascinating to me, but as Agnes recounts what life was like living with Natan, I felt disengaged somehow. Whether it was because this part of the story relied too much either too much on recorded facts or too much on fictionalisation, I’m not sure.

Interestingly, Agnes’ trial is set to be reheard nearly 200 years afterwards applying modern justice principles. It is certainly a story that fascinated Iceland, and this book was a story that fascinated me. I’m very eager to see what the film is like and to read more of Kent’s work.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Historical Fiction