The Glass Woman - a haunting tale set in 17th century Iceland
Caroline Lea brings this ancient world brilliantly to life, from the bone-breaking cold and desolation of the countryside, to the warmth and, at times, poison, of the community. As an outsider Rósa is treated with suspicion and contempt, writes Michele Magwood
Published in the Sunday Times: 05/05/2019
The Glass Woman ****
Caroline Lea, Micheal Joseph, R290
Seventeenth-century Iceland was a strange, preternatural place. A place of superstition and violent landscape, of brutal weather and scant food. It was the time of transition between the old beliefs, with their spells and haunting folk tales called Sagas, and the forbidding new Christian faith.
In the south of the country, a young woman named Rósa is leaving her village to join her new husband in the west. She had little choice in accepting his offer of marriage, with her father dead and her mother old and ailing. Jón Eiríkkson is a wealthy farmer and trader who will provide for her mother. He is also the leader of his village, but there are worrying rumours about him. He has only recently buried his first wife, who died inexplicably.
Rósa is, unusually for women at that time, well-educated. Her father was a bishop and insisted on her learning to read and write. She is also still influenced by the old ways, the great Sagas and runes of folklore. Her hew husband, however, is a conservative and pious man, and she is expected to be silent and obedient. When she sets off with his manservant on the long journey to her new home, she is petrified of what lies ahead.
Lea brings this ancient world brilliantly to life, from the bone-breaking cold and desolation of the countryside, to the warmth and, at times, poison, of the community. As an outsider Rósa is treated with suspicion and contempt.
"Whispering warms them in the dark winters. They would watch their own grandmammas drowned by a merman for the sake of a good story."
The book opens with a body floating to the surface of the ice-crusted sea: "Bone-white fingers waving, as if alive." In the village, "smoke from the fires in the nearby crofts sends a black scrawl into the icy air - dark runic scribbles against the villagers' excited white breath".
As the story unfolds, it becomes apparent that Jón is hiding some dramatic secrets, but is he evil or is he a good man at heart? We are kept guessing until the end.