I picked this book up at the Ryedale Book Festival book swap last Saturday, spent most of the weekend reading it, and finally ploughed through the last of its 500 pages last night. It is brilliant.I’m not sure why this book escaped me before, seeing as it is right up my street-an historical novel told from a multi character perspective, all of the characters being women, set in Iceland and Greenland during the founded of that colony is pretty much every single box ticked for me. Maybe it is because the cover of the paperback is so unbelievably dreadful. Seriously, stick a Karen Maitland style arty piece on this, or indeed anything other than the badly drawn monstrosity that is the paperback version (I had a proof, with the far superior hardback’s cover, otherwise I probably wouldn’t have picked this up) and I’m sure I wouldn’t be literally the only person I know who has read this.
Opening in 985 AD, with the twenty five ship expedition to the new-found Viking colony of Greenland, the story of early Icelanders shows the brutality, magic and grit of their lifestyle. Scraping a living from bad pastures, with no trees, hunting, hawking and fishing, the world of the Norse men is vast and mysterious. The male characters journey from Norway to Vinland, and yet the device of this book being told solely from three women’s point of view shows how incredibly small their lives are compared to the menfolk. Yes, menfolk. This book is written for the most part in a dialect that could be considered a little olde worlde, but comes straight out of a saga. Comparable with Wolf Hall in the way language is experimented with in the creation of characters and how they think, this book could take a long time to get into. I fell into it, because I just love the sagas and their style of writing, but maybe the archaic ways that part of this book are written on are the reason behind the amount of one star reviews on goodreads that I was frankly flabbergasted by.
The ‘Thrall’ is Katla, a woman born into slavery, the child of an Irish Christian mother captured in a Viking raid. Clinging to her scant memories of her mother, and her mother’s faith, Katla journeys as part of her master Einar’s household to the newly formed Eastern Settlement in Greenland. Amongst the party is Thorbjorg, seeress and mystic to the God Odin, who is leaving to start again after her reputation as a witch saw her driven off from homes firstly in Norway then again in Iceland. Thorbjorg is probably one of my favourite characters in the book, she deeply believes in her communication with the Gods, and the power of her rituals and runes, yet is human and wise and learns more than anyone else that the future cannot be held back, and that the past leaves a stain no matter how much one tries to forget.
The book follows Thorbjorg and Katla, and later Katla’s daughter Bibrau, a complicated and hostile girl, who may be selectively mute and whose obsession with her magic and her hatred of her mother causes bitterness and grief to many, through the first twenty years of settlement, to the arrival of Christianity in Greenland. The three generations, and the obvious association of the maiden-mother-crone meme, work so well as they show the differences between women, even though they live and work together and could be seen from the outside as having very similar lives.
This book apparently took ten years to write, and every little bit of research and detail shows. It feels for the most part like you are either reading it from the top of a windswept cliff, or from the muggy insides of a smoke filled turf homestead. When a messenger travels down the fjords to invite you to the Althing, you hear his howl.
The closeness between man and nature is shown everywhere, in the weirdly hypnotic nature of their religion that involves sacrifice, dirt, sweat, hair and blood as well as an endless cycle of chipping runes onto things. The constant obedience and traditions of the Norse makes the otherwise small inward looking lives of the women more substantial and spiritual that the priest that spends his time feasting and conning people into adopting a faith in order to increase trade. Most of what Thorbjorg and Bibrau does feels like witchcraft, but the arrival of Christianity on the island brings with it an uncomfortable realisation that the pagan practices that are quickly disappearing in other parts of Europe are being replaced by a religion that truly believes they are eating the flesh of a self-sacrificed man as part of their worship. It is a strange world, a world which makes the reader uncomfortable and unsure of their place in it, but damn is it well done.
Every part of a Viking world is here, from the feasting and raiding, to the Althings and Yules. Making it from the point of view of a slave shows a different side to the Viking story, when we think of the hard drinking raiders with a girl on each lap, we don’t normally follow that girl back into the greasy kitchen where she toils, or to her freezing hovel afterwards, and we don’t see the constant sexual harassments and assaults they experience. Katla is so hard done by, all she wants is love, and so her conversion to Christianity is inescapable. Yet she is still a thrall, to a different master.
The book is so well structured, if very long, but again, I liked this as it felt that nothing of importance was missed out. I needed the extra 200 pages to get to know Bibrau properly, in order for her actions to have the most impact. The last 100 pages are so tense and so gripping, it’s structured like a tightly coiled spring, and the eventual release of tension made me cry, for Katla and all the Vikings.
Some of the characters are evil, but they are all for the most part human, with human failings. I should give trigger warnings for rape and sexual violence, and the denial of freedom and body autonomy.
If you like historical fiction, especially of the kind that tells it as it was, rather than a romanticised version of it, please read this book, if only so I’ve got someone who didn’t hate it to talk about it to.