shortlisted for Book of the Month
"...the ‘then’ is just as captivating as the ‘now’ story. We know that the ‘then’ story is setting out little clues, but it’s hard to know what they are."
fictional drama /mystery
"On a long, cold Icelandic night in March 1920, Gunnar, a hermit blacksmith, finds himself with an unwanted lodger – Sigurd, an injured stranger who offers a story from the past. But some stories, even those of an old man who can barely walk, are too dangerous to hear. They might alter the listener’s life forever... by ending it.
Others are keen on changing Gunnar’s life as well. Overbearing Brynhildur is set on marrying him. The Conservative Women of Iceland are determined to make him a model Christian. Gunnar’s doctor is preparing an intervention. An enigmatic elf might exist... or not. And the demons in his mind never leave for long… With so many keen to change Gunnar’s fate, will he find strength and courage to write his own story?"
I like ‘strange’. And the set up for this book is certainly that. Okay, the premise is quite simple: a blacksmith living alone in 1920s Iceland finds himself having to take care of an injured stranger and while the stranger recovers from his injuries, he entertains the blacksmith with a story, told over several nights.
But it’s not quite so straightforward. It seems the stranger is not so benign and he insists that no one must know he is at the blacksmith’s house. Odder still are the folk in the village: some who want to get close to the blacksmith, and some who shy away from him.
It’s hard to talk much about this book without giving away spoilers. So let me just say that the ‘then’ is just as captivating as the ‘now’ story. We know that the ‘then’ story is setting out little clues, but it’s hard to know what they are. In the ‘now’ story, we feel there must be a connection, some reason why the stranger is here, telling this particular tale.
I pride myself on guessing twists correctly, but I didn’t quite get this one right. It’s fair to say that the stories, both ‘then’ and ‘now’, start off fairly placidly. This is as it should be, for we are being told a story, round the fireside, in instalments, just as the blacksmith is listening, day by day and we, like he, wait impatiently for the next chapter. Then the last part of the story picks up in speed and tension and I was absolutely riveted. The drama is intense, the plot reveals come thick and fast, and the ending is satisfying and yet… it might not be an ending. I think it is for the reader to decide what really happens.
Mystical, and sometimes a little creepy, this story sits firmly within its landscape. The characters are insular, as you’d expect in such an isolated place, and of course everyone knows everyone else’s business. There are some moments of genuine laugh out loud comedy - the women who try to bring Gunnar back to the Church are fabulously OTT and hilariously scary - and there are scenes of real tragedy.
Gunnar is a well-drawn character. Irascible, odd, unsociable, he sits on the edge - physically and symbolically - even of this cut-off community and his people skills are practically non-existent (but it becomes clear as the book progresses exactly how he came to be so). Sigurd may be the one telling the story, but really the book is about Gunnar. Yet the other characters all come marvellously to life, in both the 'then' and the 'now'. Getting to know them so well, it's very satisfying when the two threads start to come together and so much of what happens in the last few pages makes sense because it's as much character-driven as it is action-packed. That said, there are lots of on-the-edge-of-your-seat moments too.
If I have one niggle, it is that occasionally there is a bit too much ‘head-hopping’ where we go from hearing the thoughts of one character to hearing those of another within the same paragraph. But it is just a tiny niggle.
This story was an ambitious project and the author has executed it with aplomb. It’s not like anything I’ve ever read before and these strange, sad, funny, murderous people will stay with me for a long time.
Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds
© Annie Whitehead
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