Pulitzer Prize winner and best-selling author Jane Smiley's The Greenlanders is an enthralling novel in the epic tradition of the old Norse sagas.
Set in the 14th century in Europe's most farflung outpost, a land of glittering fjords, blasting winds, sun-warmed meadows, and high, dark mountains, The Greenlanders is the story of one family - proud landowner Asgeir Gunnarsson; his daughter Margret, whose willful independence leads her into passionate adultery and exile; and his son Gunnar, whose quest for knowledge is at the compelling center of this unforgettable audiobook. Jane Smiley takes us into this world of farmers, priests, and lawspeakers, of hunts and feasts and long-standing feuds, and by an act of literary magic, makes a remote time, place, and people not only real but dear to us.
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Retelling the sagas in a floundering land
Jane Smiley claimed she "chanelled" the writing here and produced a tale very much like the Old Norse sagas. That is, she shears it of overt characterization and literary ornament. It's an admirable ambition, but I am glad I read Njal's and Egil's sagas first to get the flavor.
Unfortunately, the result is numbing. It's epic in size but not in energy. The people come and go, but little grasp remains for the listener of who's who, and it's difficult to care much. I wanted lots more about the decline of Greenland's Norse settlers, but it's vague; wrapped up in accusations of witchcraft, convincing in theory, but not as a fictional pageturner.
I doubt if there are other books in this genre. Only "Wayward Heroes" by Halldor Laxness to my knowledge represents for a wider audience a literary-minded author taking this theme up.
I liked his ravings as Loras the crazed prophet late on. This was one time the voices came alive. He tries his best, but over so long a trek, it's hard to make this material exciting enough
To find out more about the real Viking and later Norse contexts, as Jesse Byock has shown in Iceland. It also led me to seek out Neil Gaiman's retelling of Norse myth, a subject I knew nearly nothing about. So, while the tale itself lagged, the medievalist in me found inspiration.
Smiley tried in "Ten Days in the Hills" to retell Boccaccio's "Decameron." She did not succeed, but she at least has the legacy of a medieval literature Ph.D. to give her ideas. I read her big book about ways of looking at fiction similarly. She never draws me in, however.
- John L Murphy