5 Great Books Set in Iceland That We Love

5 Great Books Set in Iceland That We Love

Thursday, 28 April, 2022

There’s so much to love about Iceland! Venture outside, and you’re surrounded by breathtaking, rugged beauty. Inside, you can get cozy with creamy skyr, a shot of schnaps, and an unputdownable book.

Iceland has a long history of epic poetry, and that tradition has carried into the modern world. This tiny island just below the Arctic Circle boasts more writers, more books published, and more books read per capita than any other country in the world.

Here are five books set in Iceland that took us there on the page: two nonfiction books that explore what makes Iceland so badass, a Gothic novel rife with witchcraft and secrets, a family saga-travelogue mashup, and a chilly slab of Icelandic noir with a formidable lady detective.

To hear us discuss these books and more, listen to our podcast Iceland: Warrior Poets, Emo Horses, and Maybe (Probably) Elves.


The Glass Woman - Caroline Lea

The Glass Woman
> Caroline Lea

If you find phrases like ‘reminiscent of Jane Eyre and Rebecca’ or ‘set against the backdrop of 17th-century witch trials’ or ‘Gothic-infused’ appealing, this is the Iceland story for you.

A rural village in Iceland in 1686 is not an easy place for anyone to be. But it’s especially difficult for the young, unmarried, poor daughter of a dead clergyman. Rósa and her beloved mother are in dire straits. So when a trader named Jón comes to town — gruff, intimidating, ill-mannered but financially viable — and offers his hand (but not his heart) in marriage, Rósa reluctantly accepts.

After a grueling horseback journey to his isolated home in western Iceland, she receives a chilly welcome from the villagers. And soon, she’s hearing unsettling rumors. Jón’s previous wife disappeared. No, she died. Actually, they whisper, she was murdered. It doesn’t help that Jón’s best friend Pétur is thought to be feral. Or a demon. Or a changeling.

Although she lives among vast swaths of land and sea, a sense of claustrophobia infuses the story. Rósa is trapped: by snowstorms, the wind, and the vow she made to this stranger to whom she’s now connected for life. And she’s dogged in her pursuit to unravel the mysteries of her new husband, the villagers’ superstitions, and the secret upstairs. {more}

The sky was a wide blue eye above her. When it paled, near midnight, the sun would skim below the edge of the horizon, then resurface in a blink, shedding a milky half-light. In the distance squatted the upturned tabletop of Hekla. It spat smoke and ash into the sky, sometimes spewing out black rocks and lava to entomb the land and people for miles around. Hekla was known to be the open door into Hell. All in Iceland feared it, and many would rather die than live within sight of it. But Rósa could not imagine living anywhere else. — Caroline Lea


The Almost Nearly Perfect People - Michael Booth

The Nordic countries of Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Iceland are reported to be the happiest around. They’ve got healthy life expectancies, high GDP per capita, a robust social net, low corruption, high trust, free educational systems, good public transit, they look after one another, and they’re generous. This book tackles the question: What’s up with that?

Author Michael Booth spent ten years living among Scandinavia people, not as a social scientist but as a husband. He’s a British journalist married to a Danish woman living in Copenhagen with a voice that’s funny, charming, and a wee bit grumpy — which makes him a reliable and delightful guide through Scandinavia’s sterling reputation.

Booth, too, has read the reports about how happy Danes are — and he investigates, then presents the case, culture by culture. Each nation gets a dedicated chapter that explores its claims of Nordic exceptionalism — and he interviews people who share their personal insights.

Warning: Reading this may encourage a spontaneous trip to the snowy, highly-taxed, but happy lands up north. {more}

‘Well, my answer is going to be a little bit disappointing,’ said Professor Wilkinson with a sigh. ‘I don’t really think measures of happiness internationally are necessarily very dependable. For instance, for an American to say they are not happy sounds like an admission of failure, but for a Japanese person it sounds like bragging to say they are, so I think one has to be very careful. We find there are systematic problems with subjective measures related to inequality. How people use the word happy, for instance, or how they present themselves. I don’t think these surveys mean nothing, but I wouldn’t put a great deal into them. All of our measures are objective, like death rates, obesity and so on.’ — Michael Booth


The Island - Ragnar Jónasson

The Island
> Ragnar Jónasson

The story opens in 1987, when a pair of young lovers are on a weekend getaway in the Icelandic Westfjords. The terrain is wild, their passion is white-hot, and all signs point to them consummating their relationship. But before we can get to know too much about either of them, tragedy strikes.

Ten years later, a group of long-time but estranged friends plan a reunion on the island of Elliðaey. Forget what you think you know about islands. Elliðaey is an enormous rock with a smooth top covered in green grass. There is one lonely house perched on top. And that’s about all: Rock. Water. Little House. Seabirds.

Despite what may have been good intentions, the frenemy reunion is tense and the opposite of fun. It begins to dawn on them (and us) that perhaps this isolated, dangerous-if-you’re-not-careful island was not the best place for their reunion.

When one of them goes off the edge of the island’s cliff, it’s no accident. It’s murder. And one of them did it.

Wildly atmospheric, this story pokes around in dark emotional corners. It also presents a believable picture of daily life in Iceland while taking us inside police department politics and the challenges of solving crimes in this vast, unforgiving, but very beautiful landscape. {more}

Klara was beginning to get cold feet too. Perhaps it was just the awareness of being so completely cut off from civilization. She had a sudden uneasy feeling that they were stranded, marooned on a desert island, with no way of making contact with the outside world except via the radio. Trapped in a magnificent landscape painting. The house, or rather hunting lodge, nestled at the foot of a grassy slope that swept up to meet the sky before plummeting vertically into the sea. Not far off was another, smaller building, a nineteenth-century bird-hunters’ hut, one of the oldest buildings in the Westman Islands, Benni had said. Someone was calling her name – Benni, probably. She filled her lungs with the fresh sea air, listening to the cries of the birds, the only sound to impinge on the silence. Then, determined to enjoy the moment, she shrugged off the creeping sense of dread and went to join the others. — Ragnar Jónasson


How Iceland Changed the World - Egill Bjarnason

How Iceland Changed the World
> Egill Bjarnason

This charming, well-told history of Iceland is a fun romp through major events — the French Revolution, the Moon Landing, the founding of Israel — that shows how this small, dynamic island in the North Atlantic may have sparked them all.

Author Egill Bjarnason is everything you could want in a history teacher: He’s well-informed, funny, and has a gift for detail. Exhibit A: ‘For the first nine hundred years of Selfoss’s settlement, the area saw few travelers because crossing the river on horseback or rowboat was a life-threatening endeavor and, let’s be honest, not worth it.’

The sense of place in this short-ish book is strong. With his stories and insights, Bjarnason paints a picture of old Iceland as a challenging place to live: in the dark and the wind, on a rock where sometimes volcanoes erupt with global consequences. But he also vividly demonstrates that Iceland is a country with a small-town vibe, an outdoorsy place that somehow became progressive in its politics.

Although these stories feel a bit like tall tales, they’re all true — and it’s a treat. {more}

The meeting was held at Höfði House, a large, somewhat grim-looking white house built in 1909 for the French consul and later used for the British consulate. It is also, incidentally, very haunted. Memoirs of an early occupant report the presence of the ghost of a young drowning victim. A British envoy who lived there in the 1950s was so shaken by the ghost that he insisted the British consulate be moved; he even applied for special permission from the foreign office to do so. Today the Icelandic Foreign Ministry’s official line states, ‘We do not confirm or deny that the Höfði has a ghost.’ — Egill Bjarnason


The Tricking of Freya - Christina Sunley

The Tricking of Freya
> Christina Sunley

There’s a lot going on in this novel, and it works. It begins as a childhood memoir and morphs into a thrilling outdoor adventure. But it’s also an immigrant story with a family mystery at its core. And it’s an examination (celebration, condemnation) of the power of story and language to shape our lives.

Our heroine and narrator is Freya Morris. For most of the year, she lives in Connecticut with her mother (her words: ‘a limbo to be endured’), but every summer, they make a pilgrimage to see their relatives in Gimli, a village in Canada that was settled by Icelandic immigrants.

The highlights of the trip are her grandmother’s cooking, the Icelandic Festival, and time spent with her Aunt Birdie. To 10-year-old Freya, Birdie is an enthralling combination of playful, dramatic, emotional, mysterious, and threatening. What young Freya perceives as mood swings are actually symptoms of Birdie’s mental illness. And one summer, during the Icelandic Festival, a tragedy changes all of their lives.

In the fallout, Freya distances herself from the family until she accidentally trips over a decades-old family secret. Then her only option is to leave all that’s familiar and head to Iceland to learn the truth.

Author Caroline Rea fills this story with wordplay, dark humor, and exhilarating descriptions of Iceland’s otherworldly landscapes. There’s symbolism and shout-outs to Icelandic sagas, and Birdie does a bang-up job educating Freya, and therefore us, about what it all means. {more}

Winter in Iceland, Freya min, was much longer and darker than here. Little work could be done outdoors-light was scant, the weather forbidding. Dark day after long dark day the Icelanders were trapped inside. How did they stand it? They read. Members of the household took turns reading out loud by the smoky glow of a lamp lit by whale oil: sagas and poetry and the Bible and newspapers and any books they could get their hands on. Books were passed farm to farm. The name for these evening readings was levoldvaka, meaning evening-wake. In Iceland in winter, words took the place of light. — Christina Sunley

Top image courtesy of Norris Niman/Unsplash.

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