Pulitzer Prize winner and bestselling author Jane Smiley's The Greenlanders is an enthralling novel in the epic tradition of the old Norse sagas. Set in the fourteenth century in Europe's most far-flung 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 book. Jane Smiley takes us into this world of farmers, priests, and lawspeakers, of hunts and feasts and longstanding feuds, and by an act of literary magic, makes a remote time, place, and people not only real but dear to us.
And in that story emerges a nation that does not exist anymore, a style of life that had disappeared anywhere else and that is on the verge of extinction. Because even if Greenland's original settlers belonged to a different nation, their almost full isolation and their way of life turns them into something new... which by the time the novel opens is already something old and dying.
The details of the daily life are excruciating and at the same time you do not feel as if you are reading a history book instead of the novel you expected. Even though there are main characters emerging in the book, part of the beauty of the book is that you never know who will die or when or how.
It is a very dense read - even if you want to read fast, the text slows you down with the details, the prose and the style. But in a good way - in the way in which good non-fiction slows you down when it gets technical. And still it remains a fascinating fiction. Although it is not an easy read emotionally either - deaths, hunger and human stupidity is part of the book - whatever nature does not manage to take away, humans do. The foreigners that at the beginning of the novel are a good omen and carry happiness by the end of the novel turn into the worst thing that could have happen to the community - first by just influencing it and then by effectively destroying it. It is a dying world - with the Earth going into the small Ace Age, Greenland becomes too cold and inhospitable. And yet - noone gives up - it is only the external influence that manages to break up everything.
And somewhere amongst that saga are the stories - people telling stories - of heroes and real people, of their life and the life of others. And midway through the book, some of the stories are the stories of the people that tell them, the same stories we already read. And yet - they are different - because stories belong to the teller... and every time a story is told, it changes.
It is a marvelous novel - but only if someone is prepared for the style and the scope.
The story is told as a saga, with language and scope to match. It took me about 100 pages to get used to the style - initially I was quite frustrated by the scale, and kept waiting for a main character to emerge. (That was fairly fruitless - at one point it felt as if as soon as someone developed a personality they died.) But once I accepted that wasn't going to happen, I could appreciate the skill and subtlety of the narrative. The life of the community is fantastically well-imagined, and the saga style is well executed. It gives the reader a strong sense of the cycles of life: whether these are cycles of vengeance (the core of the first part of the book is a running vendetta between two neighbouring families), the cycles of the seasons, or the way that different people go through similar events, emotions and choices.
There is a real focus, as well, on stories - people tend to tell a story when they want to give advice, warning or comfort to another (for example, a woman's lover tells her stories of people whose affairs, while adulterous, are clearly seen favourable by the fates).
In fact, one of the best things about the saga style is that there is very little psychological description - we have to work out the motivations largely from what people say or do. So, for example, sometime after a marriage of convenience, we are told: "she went to him and sat close beside him in a way that was unusual. Now Olaf looked at his wife and laughed and said, "Have you been trying your own potions, then, so that you have blinded yourself to my low brow and swarthy looks?" Margret had no answer to this, and Olaf went outside". This is all there is to tell us that the marriage is never consummated.
This book might not suit everyone. But if you have the time to give yourself over to it, I think it is a very rewarding read.
But, in short, it is worth it. Each petty squabble, each encroaching superstition, each abandoned farmstead among the vulnerable, thin band of Norse emigrants who constituted the titular Greenlanders increases the grey, windswept, taut feeling that these people are on their way to their own (undisclosed and historically mysterious) end. You can't let it go. You have to come along with it, yourself getting gritty winter-sand blown into your hair and eating sourmilk and dried bilberries and sharpening old inter-family feuds.
I mean, from the outset, it's hopeless. This arrogant clutch of 14th-century farmers bring incompatible Scandinavian farming techniques and undiluted disdain for the indigenous "skraelings" (Eskimo or Inuit), who continue sleek and fleshy as the Greenlanders dwindle and starve. Epidemic after gruesome epidemic decimate the steaders. They kill amongst themselves for honor or anger or fear. The land refuses to give and each year the crops and livestock weaken more. Ships stop coming, and the Greenlanders—no trees—cannot build their own.
Many of the people in the multi-generational story here are real. You can look some of them up. They happened. The place-names where they lived and worked still vaguely discernible on the land. Though they are completely vanished now, Smiley makes each of their life stories utterly plausible, such that you are confused as to where fiction stops and the surreal, remote, but *real* history of the failed colonies on Greenland begins.
It is haunting and cold-feeling and bleak. It never wavers from its calculated, saga-style prose. But it can't be ignored, and draws one back night after night until the end finally comes.
And there are a lot of pages. Nearly 600 of them, full of the ordinary and extraordinary details of people's lives, their disputes and loves and mistakes and changes of heart, their physical and mental illnesses, their hardships and hopes and tragedies and moments of pettiness and violence and beauty. It's compelling stuff, and through it all, these people, for all their differences from us, feel absolutely like real people.
This is not a fast-reading book. It's the kind of book that really only works, I think, if you just let it unspool at its own pace and take you along for its slow but immersive ride. And you know what? I think it did me an incredible favor with that. I feel like lately I've been feeling sort of stupidly stressed about my reading life. I'm not reading as many books as usual! I'm not making sufficient progress through my out-of-control TBR shelves! Whatever I'm reading, I'm constantly distracted by thinking about what I'm going to read next! Or, rather, I was. This book just sort of demanded I let all that go and just relax and enjoy the journey. Which, after all, is what pleasure reading is supposed to be about. And whaddaya know? It worked.
Rating: Slightly to my surprise, I'm giving this one 4.5/5. Sometimes, you just get the right book at the right time, and you have to show it some appreciation for that. Plus, the ending was so poignant that it's left me with unexpected emotions that still seem to be lingering after I've turned the last page and shut the covers.
The book is written, especially in the beginning, with lots of myths and stories of past Greenlanders inserted. It’s obvious that the ancestors of the Greenlanders were much more adventurous than they are now. The previous generations used to travel to Vinland and Markland and north into Greenland. These trips are never attempted anymore. In fact, there are not even any large boats by the end of the book. Other things they lose over the course of the book are their knowledge of the laws usually enforced at the Thing, as well as contact with the church.
Smiley’s writing style is bleak and spare, just like the events of the book. Though many of the actions are dramatic, the writing stays detached and with painful slowness reveals the reactions and feelings of the main characters. It took me a long time to warm up to the pace of this book, but by the end I can’t imagine it being written any other way. Smiley doesn’t help the reader, the book is only divided into 3 large sections with no chapters to pace the book. I had a hard time with this, especially for the first third of the book. When I compare this book to The Long Ships or Kristin Lavransdatter, it suffers a bit since those books I found more engaging with easier characters to connect with and love. In the end though, I feel like I know what life was like for the Greenlanders - in fact I feel liked I’ve actually lived it. I also felt a deep connection to several of the characters, despite the slow reveal of their personalities.
But mostly it reads like the Icelandic sagas that author Jane Smiley seems to have deliberately used as her model: rich interwoven story lines, fierce and stoical characters, straightforward prose that never rises from its matter-of-fact tone no matter how harsh or horrendous the events it tells.
I found the book slow at first, but eventually got caught up in all the strangeness and the fates of the characters. (And boy, are they fated!)
A profound, high-quality historical novel. Not recommended if you're already depressed.
The detail was stunning and the way she was able to bring these peoples' culture and dispositions out was excellent. Too often I find my historical fiction/fantasy characters acting with a very modern American/European mindset. The Greenlanders she depicted were so brilliantly and harrowingly detailed, that I felt like it was a first hand account (her style imitated such an account to a high degree, that helped too). I liked how characters, who on the surface looked boringly simple (like Margaret and her emotionless reactions), were actually so complex that I wasn't even sure I was understanding all the clues I had been given. Then again, maybe I was looking for something that wasn't there... but I don't think so.
The only negative thing I have to say, and I don't think it is truly negative, is about the pacing. I think because it was a dense book, with only 3 or 4 chapters, it was hard to get into it if I only had anything less than a half hour to commit. Sadly, this has often been the case because of school. Consequently, I gave up reading it for short stints and only read it before bed when I could commit at least a half hour. I think this made me enjoy it more because I was allowed to truly sink into the story and stop reading when there was a natural change in scene or even the rare section/chapter break. So, this is not a criticism, but just a warning I suppose. I would tell people to only read this book when they have serious time to dedicate to it. A lot of serious time.