Ten Books: Iceland

New Zealand and Iceland have some things in common, being small land masses surrounded by miles of ocean with relatively small populations. Like New Zealand, literarily speaking, Iceland is doing rather well for itself, with a Nobel Prize winner (unlike New Zealand – Halldor Laxness in 1955), and a couple of international best-selling contributors to the Arctic murder mystery literary canon.

Here are ten books written by Icelandic writers, or set in Iceland, or in which Iceland is of some importance.

  1. Walking into the night, Olaf Olafsson (2003). Christian Benediktsson is a butler in California haunted by his past and his wife, who he left twenty years previously in Iceland, and to whom he writes letters that he never sends.
  2. Hypothermia, Arnaldur Indriðason (2009). Arnaldur’s excellent murder mysteries often examine issues faced by Icelandic society (genetic disease, immigration etc). In Hypothermia, a woman – seemingly overwhelmed with grief following the death of her mother – is found hanging in her summer house. Jar City (variant title: Tainted Blood) is the first in the series, and was made into an excellent film.
  3. Last rituals: an Icelandic novel of secret symbols, medieval witchcraft, and modern murder, Yrsa Sigurdardóttir (2009). A German student is found dead at a Reykjavik university, and (as the subtitle suggests) torture and witch-hunting is involved, plus some lessons in Icelandic manuscripts.
  4. The pets, Bragi Ólafsson (2008). Dark humour. Emil comes home from overseas and hides under his bed (as you would) when Havard knocks on his door. Getting no answer, Havard breaks in (as you would) and hosts a party, all the while with Emil stuck under his bed. As you read you discover a bit more about Emil and Havard’s acquaintance.
  5. 101 Reykjavik, Hallgrimur Helgason (1996). Belongs most definitely to the slacker fiction genre. Hlynur lives with his mother, is jobless and an expert in wasting his time when his life is upturned by a couple of surprises involving babies.
  6. Quick quick said the bird, Thor Vilhjálmsson (1968, translated 1987). The title is taken from a line in T S Eliot’s Four Quartets.
  7. Iceland’s Bell, Halldor Laxness (2003). Published in three parts between 1943 and 1946, Iceland’s Bell is a historical novel set in 18th century Iceland and Denmark. Jon Hreggvidsson is a fugitive (don’t tell jokes about the king); Snaefridur is a beautiful noblewoman; and Arnas Arnaeus is the manuscript collector who loves her.
  8. The tricking of Freya, Christina Sunley (2009). Within the context of Icelandic communities in Canada, The Tricking of Freya explores family relationships (particularly those of mothers, daughters and granddaughters). The novel is also a bit of an ode to language, particularly the Icelandic language and Iceland has a fair bit to do with the tricking alluded to in the title.
  9. Ice Land, Betsy Tobin (2009). Set in 1000 AD Iceland, and drawing from Norse mythology. The central character is Freya, a god who can fly (cool!), but there are also dwarves, giants, the imminent arrival of Christianity, and the volcano Hekla (volcanoes in Iceland being topical recently).
  10. A Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Jules Verne (1864). Professor Lidenbrock discovers a note in the manuscript of an Icelandic saga in which it is claimed that the entry point to the centre of the earth is in Snæfellsjökull in Iceland, and it (the journey) begins.