1686, ICELAND, AN ISOLATED, WINDSWEPT LAND HAUNTED BY WITCH TRIALS AND STEEPED IN THE ANCIENT SAGAS.
Betrothed unexpectedly to Jón Eiríksson, Rósa is sent join her new husband in the remote village of Stykkishólmur. Here, the villagers are wary of outsiders.
But Rósa harbours her own suspicions. Her husband buried his first wife alone in the dead of night. He will not talk of it. Instead he gives her a small glass figurine. She does not know what it signifies.
The villagers mistrust them both. Dark threats are whispered. There is an evil here – Rósa can feel it. Is it her husband, the land – or the villagers?
Alone and far from home, Rósa sees the darkness coming. She fears she will be its next victim…
Life in 17th Century Iceland is hard and unforgiving: food is scarce and both the landscape and the sea can be perilous. Following her father’s death, Rósa and her mother are slowly starving until she marries Jón Eiríksson, the recently widowed chieftain of Stykkishólmur – trading her freedom to save her ailing mother. Jón is a stranger to Rósa and she’s fearful of this large man she must now call husband. She feels the shadow of his first wife, Anna, looming over her. The rumours surrounding her life and death haunt Rósa and she lives in fear that she too will mysteriously vanish overnight at the hands of her husband. Alone in the croft she is haunted by eerie breaths and whispers behind her and the echoes of footsteps. She also hears sounds and scratching coming from the loft that Jón is determined to keep secret. What is he hiding behind that locked door?
Mesmerising, eerie, claustrophobic, enchanting and remarkable, this was far from the predictable gothic tale I thought it would be. Just as I was certain I knew what was going on the author threw me for a loop with a surprising twist – something she did multiple times over the course of the book. Exquisitely written with beautiful, haunting prose and wonderfully plotted, this novel had me captivated from the first pages.
It is a story steeped in history, suspicion and tradition, set in a time where Christianity has been ushered in and the traditional gods and runes are frowned upon and only practiced in secret. Rósa is a woman torn between those worlds and with the witch trials a recent memory and the village suspicious of her, she fears she will be the next person to be tried and executed; a fear that emanates from the pages making your heart race with hers.
The characters are engaging and well written. Every one of them brings something important to the story, however small their part. Jón’s first wife Anna may have passed away but she haunts Rósa and there are still whispers about her in the village, making the mysterious woman one of the story’s main characters. I liked Anna and was moved by what she went through. She is a woman who reads and wants independence living in a time women are still expected to be uneducated and have to marry to survive. She is a strong woman but also still a frightened young girl completely alone in her new home. The author uses the bleak and merciless landscape, which feels like a character in its own right, to convey Rósa’s isolation and help us understand her unease and sense of peril.
Jón was one of the characters I could never quite figure out. Was he a villain or is he misunderstood? As we learned more about his past I did warm to him a little but always had a sense of trepidation about him and felt suspicious of many of his actions. But was this just the difference in our culture and theirs or was it that he was truly someone to be afraid of? I could never decide. HIs apprentice and friend Pétur was another enigma. He would go from seeming like a kind, genuine person to someone who was strange and sinister like the flick of a switch. I did find that I understood these traits more as I learned his backstory but I never knew if he could be trusted.
In an era where marriage is for convenience and survival rather than happiness,Jón and Rósa face the greater struggle of having a marriage that contains five people – themselves, Anna, Pétur and Páll (Rósa’s cousin). I know it is a time where women are expected to put up and shut up but Rósa seems to not be someone who is able to do that. She’s too curious. Too much of a thinker. It made me worried for her and I spent the whole book convinced that it was her body the men were retrieving from the water in the prologue. Don’t worry, I’m not going to spoil it by telling you if I was right or not.
I absolutely loved this spellbinding novel. I loved being in the dark waiting for all to be revealed so the unpredictability made it all the more exciting. This is a magnificent debut from a wonderful new talent. I can’t wait to read what she does next and can’t recommend this novel highly enough.