I was contacted by MacMillan last month to get to know their latest translated author, Steinar Bragi whose novel The Icelands came out on the 25th October. Even though I do not read much Scandi crime fiction, I enjoy it a lot when I finally step out of my British/American comfort zone. So, after taking a look at the book I decided it was dark enough to make it to my Halloween reading list. But I did not know what I had in my hands…
The Icelands – Hálendið in the original Icelandic, published in 2011 and translated into English by Lorenz Garcia – tells the story of two couples, Hfran and Vigdís, and Egill and Anna, who embark on a trip to Iceland’s volcanic desert. When a storm takes them out of the road and they hit a farm, they are forced to spend the night with the two old farmers who live there. From the moment they arrive they realise that the farm is completely isolated, and the old couple have no visible way of making a living. So, how do they survive? And are they really alone?
When I first started reading Bragi’s novel I expected the characteristic raw narrative of the high quality Scandi crime fiction I have read in the past years. And I found exactly that. The coldness that oozes from the page, the dirt, the darkness. It was all there. What I did not know was that The Ice Lands is a horror story, a brutal tale of survival with bizarre glimpses into Iceland’s folklore that would terrify me. I read the novel in three seatings during Halloween’s weekend, and although I was scared, I could not put it down. From the very first page it is easy to realise there is something off. But is it all in Egill’s mind after too many joints? Is it part of Hfran’s ego? Or is it the Icelandic setting, a character on its own, clouding their vision with black sandstorms?
The four main characters take turns as narrators and each of them make the story move forward from a different angle. Even though the reader knows nothing about the characters in the very beginning, they share their backgrounds as they try to link what has happened to them in the past with current events. Among those currents events, the 2010’s economic crisis becomes a pivotal moment for the four of them. While Hfran and Egill enjoed a luxurious lifestyle, they are struggling to keep their image among Iceland’s important businessmen. On the other hand, Anna and Vigdís are self-made women who have been working hard for years as a journalist and as a therapist respectively. Despite the different economic backgrounds of the couples, the women’s tales seem completely separated from the men’s, giving them more substance than just the role of girlfriends.
As for the horror, it is clear since the moment the jeep is crashed that there is something off. The Icelandic weather makes it impossible to survive outdoors, so there is no option for them but to take shelter at the couple’s home, and the couple has no alternative to this. Or do they? As these four city Millennials enter the old couple’s homes we can see their social prejudices by their appropriation of their hosts’ space, which very much feels like a colonisation. The old couple seems to agree to this arrangement until we realise that the narrators intrusion into their lives is taken a step beyond. How? That is yours to discover.
I sincerely enjoyed The Ice Lands, probably the first horror book that I have read in my whole life. The characteristic blending of literary genre and social criticism of Scandi literature made it easier to keep reading even when I was scared, although I will admit I rushed through the last 30 pages because it was too much. The writing is raw, like the desert itself, and it would be easier to be fooled into feling the dirt of the characters in one’s face, with the sand giving everything a grayish tint. As a last recommendation, this book contains vivid descriptions of physical violence (animals included), which could upset some people and animal lovers like myself. In any case, I highly recommend The Ice Lands as we are not usually offered an opportunity into Iceland’s’ horror literature, and this seems like the best place to start.