Freya Morris lives in Connecticut, daughter of Anna, niece of Birdie, granddaughter of both Sigga and the long deceased but revered poet Olafur, the Skald Nyja Islands (Poet of New Iceland). When Freya was a child, Anna took her back to Gimli, the Icelandic community outside of Winnipeg named for Heaven, to spend the summers with Birdie and Sigga. It is during these summers that Freya learns of her Icelandic heritage, tackles the complicated language, hears the old myths, and eats the food of her people. And it is at Gimli that Freya will be changed forever, indelibly marked by her actions and those of others.
The summer she is seven, the first summer that Anna takes her to Gimli, an exuberant Freya turns a cartwheel at the welcoming party and crashes into her grandmother's china cabinet. Delicate, old tea things are smashed, the cabinet demolished, and when Anna see the wreckage and Freya in the midst of all the glass, she faints dead away, hitting her head so hard she falls into a coma for days. Left in her aunt's care as her grandmother tends to her mother in the hospital, Freya is equal parts attracted to Birdie and repelled by her. And this attraction and repulsion will be the hallmark of her conflicted feelings for this complicated aunt for many years. Although Anna wakes from the coma, she is much changed, fragile and unsteady, and Freya often takes on the role of mothering her own mother although she is still very much a child herself.
Year after year Anna and Freya return to Gimli for the summers where Freya continues to be pushed into and pulled from her aunt's orbit. She is fascinated by her late grandfather's status as a celebrated poet, Birdie's compulsion to write and dedication to her life's work, The Word-Meadow, a modern Icelandic poem, and young Freya determines that she too wants to be a poet someday. The summer that Freya is 13, a somber child who carries an impossible weight of guilt for causing her mother's accident, Birdie steals her away from Gimli, taking her to Iceland on a quest, in a move that will eventually be called kidnapping and that will expose Birdie's instability to the young Freya. Freya will be changed once again for the vitlaus (Icelandic for crazy or mad) adventure and for the eventual result, Birdie's suicide months later after her release from a mental hospital, piling on another layer of guilt for Freya.
There are no more Gimli summers for Freya and she stays away from all the memories waiting to ambush her there until she is finally summoned back for her Sigga's 100th birthday where she will overhear the secret that sets the whole novel in motion. Outside a window, she hears tell of an illegitimate child of Birdie's, given away to adoption and so starts her fevered search for her cousin. The novel is a letter she's writing to Birdie's child of all her memories, the family stories, and the terrible events that led Freya to her search, despite the conspiracy of denial all around her.
Sunley has written beautifully of the haunting landscape of Iceland and the deep veins of mythology that crisscross the island. The land and the people are unsurprisingly poetic given the Icelandic reverence for words. Freya's character is drifting and undirected until the discovery of the existence of Birdie's child. Her obsession with this unacknowledged cousin mirrors Birdie's mania for discovering the whereabouts of her father's lost letters home to his uncle Pall, the catalyst of her flight to Iceland with Freya. Birdie's character is like an Icelandic volcano, quiet sometimes, rumbling sometimes, and sometimes erupting and changing the course of all the lives around her. The writing is descriptive and lush and Sunley accurately captures the mercurialness of bipolar disorder. As the title suggests, Freya is tricked the way that Gylfi is tricked in Norse mythology, ultimately discovering the truth without the attendant satisfaction of uncovering it. And in fact, the reader knows the truth long before Freya uncovers it, making it strange that the ending then still feels a bit rushed. This is a well written novel about both a literal search and also a search for self and the truth of that self within the context of family history and stories. It is a celebration of Icelandic culture and community and a quiet testament to connection and coming of age.
Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book for review.