A collection of three novels, and weighing in at comfortably over 1,000 pages, ‘Kristin Lavrandatter’ is what I call a hearty winter read. It’s equally weighty in terms of literary pedigree: Sigrid Unset was awarded the Nobel for literature in 1928 (the third of only thirteen woman to win the prize).
Out of respect for my back and bag straps, I read the trilogy on my Kindle, a choice made even more appealing by the fact that this also gave me access to Tiina Nunnally’s award-winning translation. Apparently the only other English version is from the 1920 and attempts to deal with the medieval setting by using consistently archaic language. I sincerely doubt my patience for artificially included ‘thou’s and ‘methinks’ would have survived the attempt and am, once again, grateful to have discovered the joys of translated literature in a period when there are so many outstanding examples for me to devour.
Back to ‘Kristin’, the novels trace our heroine’s story from her childhood, through adolescence and well into an impressively old age. As the title tells us, she is the daughter of Lavran, a man who could easily take on Atticus Finch in a best-dad-ever competition (for the record, I haven’t read ‘Go Set a Watchman’). At the start of the first volume, her comfortable and well-regulated life within the Norwegian nobility seems assured. As she grows up however, Kristin finds it increasingly hard to conform. There is trouble when boys around her start to notice her beauty, and even more trouble as she begins to identify independent wishes and thoughts within herself.
The titles of the three volumes: ‘The Wreath’ (named after the traditional head covering for virgins), ‘The Wife’ and ‘The Cross’ follow a conventional path through medieval womanhood. The implication of conventionality however does not always match the contents of the books, in which we witness the protagonist’s inner and outward resistance again society and custom.
My advice to readers who are planning on embarking on this icy epic is to enjoy the romance and the rebellion, and not to worry too much about the history. For one thing, despite the detailed setting I’m not sure it added to my appreciation of the medieval mindset. For another, while I’m sure that for connoisseurs there is a lot to discuss about fourteenth- century Norwegian power politics, personally I came to the book with nothing, left without much more, and still enjoyed the story. The men around Kristin may take current events seriously, but she herself is thankfully uninterested in such concerns and it is possible to take her as your model while reading.
Thanks to Kristin’s elevated social status, her life story contains much more comfort and much less continual starvation than the last Nobel-prize winning novel I read (‘Independent People‘). Just like Laxness however, Unset has introduced me to a new literary landscape. I’m now three countries in to my Nordic winter reading project and I feel 2017 is going very well indeed.