If you were being quizzed, how many of you, even those of you who are well read, could come up with an Icelandic author off the top of your head? I know I certainly couldn't have before being introduced to not only an Icelandic author but to THE Icelandic author, 1955 Nobel Prize winning author Laxness. This bleak, desolate novel of a poor sheep farmer ekeing out an existence for himself and his unhappy family can be a tough read. After all, it doesn't sound terribly appealing, does it? But it is far more than the plotline would suggest.
Opening the story with the recounting of a old myth, the reader first Bjartur of Summerhouses hiking to his newly purchased croft, which is reputed to be haunted by the characters of the myth. We see the measure of the man when he refuses to toss a stone on the cairn built to appease the mythic figures he disdains. And we know his hard-headed determination will not yield to anything, not to softness, kindness, foolishness, or truth. He has worked for 18 years to be able to put down a downpayment on a poor farm with only a small sod home/barn on it and a few animals but he feels richer than the richest man around. To this remote holding he brings first a wife, who gives birth to another man's child alone during a blizzard, bleeding to death in the process. Surprisingly Bjartur opts to raise the baby as his own, finds another wife (one who seemingly had little to no choice but to marry him) and fathers more children, only two of whom live past infanthood.
This is really Bjartur's story as most of the other characters are one dimensional, with the exception of eldest daughter Asta Sollilja. Life is hard and nature cruel but Bjartur continues to eke out an existence. There are great descriptive swathes spent on worms killing sheep and butchering animals and the like but somehow, they only add to the narrative. Like a homegrown sort of Odyssey, all experienced within a day or two's walk, the experiences and adventures of the bombastic Bjartur are all oriented towards a striving for home (and in Bjartur's case, of independence). Almost all reviewers have called this an epic book, and it does indeed feel epic. Echoes of poor farming settlers everywhere abound but there also seems to be something indescribable that is purely Icelandic here as well. It feels as if this must have been written under the lowering sky of sunless winters. And yet, I think it brilliant in a depressing, downtrodden sort of way. Probably not for all readers, as there is little (no?) joy to be found in the characters here. But for those who want to persevere, they will be rewarded with nuggets of truth.