It says a lot about Iceland as a country that giving books on Christmas Eve is a long-held tradition. With Christmas just around the corner, we’ve compiled a list of recommended reading for anyone wanting to read more by Icelandic writers.
Like any list, this one is neither definitive nor complete, (where are the women writers, you might fairly ask? And what about children’s literature?) Instead, think of this as a starting base to explore the words of a unique country and culture.
The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning
By Hallgrímur Helgason
The story behind Hallgrímur’s comic work is like something out of one of his novels. The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning was his first novel to be written in English, only to be published in Icelandic.
Hallgrímur, of 101 Reykjavik fame, has long been known for his quirkiness and the story of hit man, Tomislav Bokšić – aka Toxic – who finds himself in Iceland, is no exception. Crime writer Grant Nichol (who recently left Iceland for Finland) tells me it’s possibly the funniest book he’s ever read.
Extract: “At least God never showed his face in Iceland. Olie tells me it wasn’t even created by him. No wonder it’s the most peaceful country in the world.”
Angels of the Universe
By Einar Mar Gudmundsson
Just as dark as a Scandinavian winter, yet filled with trickles of light and humour, Angels of the Universe is the journey of one young man’s descent into schizophrenia and years in a psychiatric ward. It was also made into a film by Fridrik Thor Fridriksson.
Extract: “Did I ask the stars to tell me some news? Did the wind bring me tidings? Once, she would welcome me with a smile, once she would laugh at the door. The autumn evenings were tranquil then. The pavements echoed back footsteps. I remember the raindrops on the leaves, how they lit up like candelabra. Her eyes glittered like jewels in my soul. Then we would lie down and blaze like the insides of mountains.“
Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was
It’s an interesting paradox that for a country who had the world’s first openly lesbian Prime Minister, Jóhanna Sigurdardóttir, queer literature in Iceland is hard to find.
Writer and artist, Sjón, decided to change all that with his story of 16-year-old Máni Steinn Karlsson, growing up gay in Iceland in 1918.
“We have no queer literature in Iceland,” Sjón said. “So I made a decision to include quite graphic sexual scenes in the book. This came as a shock to many readers, but it was very important to me that I was absolutely honest about the life of this character.”
Extract: “A low groan escapes the man standing over the kneeling boy. With his back pressed to the cliff, the man appears to have merged with his own shadow, become grafted to the rock. He groans again, louder, in increasing frustration, thrusting his hips so his swollen member slides to and fro in the boy’s mouth.”
The Journey Home
By Olaf Olafsson
Leaving behind her life as manager of an English inn, Disa Jonsdottir begins the journey back to Iceland, only to be confronted with memories of her past. This is an exquisite, slow-burning meditation on loss and longing.
Extract: “I open the window to let in the morning breeze and take a deep breath. A bird perches on a branch outside the window, a blackbird, not unlike an Icelandic redwing, gazing at me with a slightly sad eye. A mist lies over the fields and the dew-laden grasses stir gently in the wind. It has been a hard winter but now spring has arrived and a pleasant sulfurous smell rises from the wood where the leaf mold has started to rot.”
By Ragnar Jonasson
Iceland, like much of Scandinavia, has become synonymous with crime fiction – in particular ScandiNoir. The country has a plethora of crime writers to choose from. Some, like Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, need no introduction, while newcomers like Hildur Sif Thorarensen are playing with conventions and pushing the boundaries.
But for this writer, it’s hard to go past Ragnar Jonasson‘s Dark Iceland series (translated by Quentin Bates), featuring one-time city boy Ari Thor in Siglufjordur, a small town that’s big on crime. Combining all the classic elements of Agatha Christie with a uniquely Icelandic setting, Jonasson’s books are compulsively readable and entirely authentic.
Extract: “The red stain was like a scream in the silence. The snow-covered ground was so white that it had almost banished the winter night’s darkness, elemental in its purity. It had been snowing since that morning, big, heavy flakes falling gracefully to earth.”