Icelandic books translated into English are pretty few and far between, so it’s quite exciting that AmazonCrossing are publishing several translated books over the next year.
One of these, On the Cold Coasts by Vilborg Davídsdóttir, is set in 15th century Iceland. This a time when there was an English presence in Iceland that was dominating fishing ports and leading to unrest. The book’s other main them is the doomed but ongoing romance between the main character Ragna and Thorkell, a man whose journey to the priesthood keeps them apart.
Ragna is very much an outsider once she has a son outside of wedlock, and there is also some question and prejudice about her ancestry possibly being from Greenland. Through it all she seems to willing to work endlessly for others.
The book is a little slow in places, but I wondered if this is deliberate and meant to reflect the slow pace of life. There is also a certain amount of sadness as much that happens is beyond Ragna’s control. She is betrayed by men throughout the book, as well as her own family. As a historical novel, it was quite interesting to read and I presume the author must have done some research.
Happier moments in the book come through Ragna’s son Michael, and the songs of those controversial ancestors. Some of the prose is beautifully written and I also loved reading about and imagining what was a very hard way of life in a very different Iceland, although the dramatic landscapes of Iceland were not used as well as they could have been in the story. I would have also liked to see more about daily life – the book is written in quite a grand and sweeping fashion, and I think there are lots of historical details about ordinary life that could have been included easily.
The translation of the story is done by Alda Sigumundsdóttir, who used to write the popular Iceland Weather Report blog and has just started a new blog on e-publishing and social media.
So, overall a mixed book for me. I loved some bits of it, but found the ending confusing and most of the male characters perhaps deliberately unlikeable. Having said that, if you love Iceland it’s worth a read to find out more about medieval times and the strong influence of religion and fishing battles on the people who lived then.
This is a book that celebrates the strength of an Icelandic woman.