Thursday, December 14, 2017

Gunnar's Daughter

After several weeks, Grant's hold on me slackened, and almost immediately, another book caught my eye: Gunnar's Daughter, by Sigrid Undset.  Undset is best known for her trilogy of novels about Kristin Lavransdatter, the story of a woman living in 14th century Norway. Gunnar's Daughter was written nearly 20 years earlier, in 1909, and takes place in 11th century Norway and Iceland.

What a great discovery! The title character, Vigdis Gunnarsdatter, is badass. Wrongheaded, but badass. Undset wrote a character that was far ahead of her time, but Vigdis doesn't feel like an anachronism. She is both heroic and human. Strong and wise but flawed. This novel is short, but it packs a punch. It succeeds because Undset's scholarship is strong. Her lifelong study of Norse history is evident, and she obviously worked damned hard to get the language just right. Vocabulary and syntax -- it all shows up as pitch-perfect even in an English translation. My mind boggles as how much better it must be in Norwegian.

Another reason the novel worked so well is because of Vigdis' story. She is the victim of sexual assault. Her assailant is Ljot (pronounced "Yot"), an Icelandic Viking she was strongly attracted to. Vigdis wanted to proceed with courtship carefully and intelligently, but Ljot was childish and churlish. Sadly, he too feels quite modern. After Ljot rapes Vigdis, her rage knows no bounds. Over the course of several days, I went from Gunnar's Daughter to the current headlines and back again. It all felt like one story.

Undset also expertly and subtly adds another layer of tension. The story is set in the Saga Age, where the Vikings had their own gods and beliefs, but Christianity is starting to have some influence, but has not completely taken root yet.

It's difficult to believe how this book has been overlooked and considered merely a warm-up for the Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy. Gunnar's Daughter, in spite of its brevity, deserves just as much respect. It is a novel whose time has come. Highly recommended.

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