September 19th, 2011

me: art

Margaret Elphinstone, The Sea Road

Stories have a life of their own. They grow, just as children grow, and perhaps we forget the small thing they once were. But we nurture them just because we respected what was there in the beginning. -- Gudrid Thorbjornardottir

The Sea Road is a version of a saga of an Icelander, a visitor to the New World that the Norse called Vinland, centuries ago. It's beautifully told in the voice of a wise, honest and keen-sighted woman. She evokes both suffering under harsh conditions and the exceptional pleasure to be derived from moments of comfort and ease with equal facility. She makes the reader understand how "[t]he greatest blessing any human being could know is to be assured they will always have food and drink," reframing the renowned peripateticism of Scandinavian people with this practical aim in focus.

Gudrid is a solitary, contemplative girl. She loses her parents rather young - her mother to a fatal illness and her father to indifference. With the guidance of her foster mother, she develops the wariness required by a life spent primarily surrounded by men. The thread of her romantic narrative is inextricably entwined with that of her adventures, and she forges bonds with her partners in a way that a woman who has never been learned to make friends with other women her own age must do to keep away loneliness. (This part of the story spoke loudly to me.) She steps in to direct the journeying parties when necessary, a voice linked to but always independent of her husband's. The story never romanticises hardship brought on by climate, disease or violent human behaviour. Gudrid describes them all with pragmatism, sensitivity and humour.

anthrokeight recommended this novel to me because the narrative begins in Snaefellsnes, the mountain in whose shadow I spent most of my recent Icelandic holiday. Though Gudrid spends only her childhood there before moving to Greenland and eventually Norway, the sense of it - the toughness imbued by years of deprivation and the graft required to scrape a living from a largely barren land - never leaves the story. I found it gripping. It's my habit to highlight on my Kindle the passages that resonate with me. In this case, I found it difficult not to highlight the entire book.

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