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Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Dark Family Saga Shines Light on Icelandic Culture

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Maybe it's an heirloom from her Icelandic ancestors, maybe a coping mechanism handed down by her mother, or perhaps it's her own personality quirk - however it began, darkness and solitude seem to follow Freya like a plague. She spends her days shuffling along New York's dingy streets, moving from her sparse basement apartment to her job in a subtarranean darkroom. Occasionally, there's a boyfriend. More often, there's not. Although her family's mostly gone, she's not completely alone in the world - an invitation to attend her grandmother's 100th birthday, complete with an airline ticket, are a forceful reminder of that. The only problem with taking the trip is that it means facing the past. Something Freya tries not to do. Ever.
The Tricking of Freya, a debut novel by Christina Sunley, begins with Freya's journey back to the formative land of her youth. It's a physical trip, true, but mostly an emotional one as she revisits memories of her long-suffering mother, her doting grandma Sigga and, especially, her unpredictable aunt, Birdie. Journeying to visit them means literally stepping into the past, walking on land settled by Freya's Icelandic ancestors. Sigga's home in Winnipeg becomes the schoolhouse where Freya learns all her mother has not taught her - how to make ponnukokur, how to form difficult Icelandic words into coherent sentences, and how to recite her famous grandfather's poetry from memory. Each summer, Freya returns to this ethereal world so far removed from her usual existence that it seems to be made of magic. Guided by the passionate Birdie, who becomes Freya's bright, colorful tutor in all things traditionally Icelandic, she spends her months in Canada just trying to keep up with her vivacious aunt. It's only too late - far too late - that she recognizes Birdie's mania for what it really is. Freya realizes only belatedly that outing the secrets her family fights to keep hidden might be the only way to bring herself out of her own personal darkness.
I'm pretty big on family sagas, especially those with fun, multi-cultural characters a la Adriana Trigiani, Maeve Binchy, etc. I thought Sunley might provide an Icelandic equivalent. Not so much. The Tricking of Freya tells a denser, darker, more literary story. Some characters (Sigga, Stefan) imbue the Icelandic angle with warmth, but mostly it comes off as a cold, dark, isolating heritage. Complex and beautiful, to be sure - just in an icy, otherworldly sort of way. Although the novel's well-crafted, it struggles to be as readable as a Trigiani or Binchy book. I'm not saying it's not worth the attempt, only that it requires a fair amount of slogging.
What makes the book unique, of course, is the light Sunley shows on a culture that has been left unexplored in recent fiction. The author's obviously proud of her homeland and heritage, and that comes through strongly in the novel. While I enjoyed my glimpse at Iceland, Sunley doesn't convince me to stay for a closer look. I shied away from the frosty tone of the book, longing for more richness, more warmth, more satisfaction from the story. The Tricking of Freya is an impressive debut, just not what I expected and not really the kind of family saga I usually enjoy. I'm of hearty stock (English and Welsh), but maybe not quite enough for an extended stay in Iceland.
(Readalikes: Hmm ... I can't think of any. Can you?)
Grade: B-
If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for language and sexual content
To the FTC, with love: I received this book from the generous folks at Picador. Thanks!


  1. Susan, you wrote a lovely review of this book. I read it so slowly. It did kind of bog down, but not really for me. Just as I would think it was going to, I would get to another passage that was beautiful. Definitely a book to take your time with. Fascinating country.

  2. I have had my eye on this one. Your review should help me go into it with appropriate expectations. I won't expect anything too warm and fuzzy!

  3. Sounds like a jolly interesting book and a window onto a culture that has been neglected in western literature. i am feling frosty just reading your review!

    Happy Thursday

  4. i think i'm drawn to this because it is not the norm warm type of novel. i plan on adding it to my scandinavia challenge. thanks for the review.


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