Losing yourself in a long winter read: ‘Kristin Lavransdatter’ by Sigrid Unset


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.

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16 Responses to Losing yourself in a long winter read: ‘Kristin Lavransdatter’ by Sigrid Unset

  1. Melissa Beck says:

    I have been wanting to read this book for such a long time but I’ve never gotten around to it. So glad to see your review!

  2. jenp27 says:

    I did enjoy this one very much when I read it a few years ago.

  3. This such a grand book! I am so happy it is still being read; it is a definite commitment. I’ve read it twice, once one long-ago summer as a book-starved teenager, when I borrowed it from my father’s bookshelf, and once again twenty-some years ago, when I was highly pregnant and looking for a good hefty time-filler in those last few endless weeks of waiting for a baby. I do believe it may be time to read it again in the next year or two. I almost tackled it for my 2014 Century of Books, but I chickened out. Though, as it was released in sections, I do believe it might count for more than one year…

    • Those books you visit at key moments in your life are really the best – it’ll be wonderful to see what it will feel like next time round!
      I’m not much good at being patient, which is one reason for reading it all in one volume, but it would be great to try it again counting each novel as more of a stand alone like I’m currently doing with Elena Ferrante … you’re right, each new part of the trilogy was published a year after the last …

  4. This has completely passed me by. I’m reading War & Peace at the moment so my biceps are in training for just such a tome – I should probably grab a copy before the inevitable muscle wasting begins!

    • I’m very jealous; I’m currently having Tolstoy withdrawal and will very likely be returning to W&P at some point this year. Maybe 2017 could be my year for reading long books (or maybe I should try a bit harder at my ‘fewer reading projects’ ambitions)?

  5. I started this years ago, I was loving it, but I was distracted and for some reason I never picked up the threads again. Thank you for reminding me that I really, really must go back.

  6. BookerTalk says:

    1,000 page about one person – that would have to be brilliantly written if it’s to sustain my interest. I did laugh when I saw your advice. It to worry about the politics. I had similar thoughts when reading war and peace, the relationship content and character development was superb but oh dear all that war stuff was a drag.

    • I’m a massive W&P fan, but it did take me many re-readings to finally get into the politics side of things – and that was about the Napoleonic wars which at least are mentioned in other novels I’ve read. I think I did pretty well at comprehending my first introduction to medieval Norwegian politics (but that’s probably because my expectations for myself were so low!)

  7. Izzy says:

    You are such a fast reader !
    This one has been on my To Be Bought list for a few months. As I prefer to avoid working out while reading, I chose the Penguin edition in 3 volumes…After reading your review, I checked the name of the translator and was glad to see that it was the same. So, what am I waiting for ? Basically, to be able to read faster 😦

    • There’s no rush! My problem is that I tend to finish books quickly and as a result have developed a very low boredom threshold for novels that take me too long to read (regardless of physical practicalities such as how long a specific book actually is). After a certain number of days it becomes a race against time to finish before I start to get tired of it …

  8. Stefanie says:

    This one of my “one of these days I am going to read this” books. Thanks for tip regarding the history bits!

    • It’s really my winter reading project that bumped this one up the tbr pile – then I was so proud of myself for getting started I resolved to not stress out over the detailed political history sections!

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