At last I pluck a book from my TBR Challenge 2021-22! I bought this book in my 2020 Book Token splurge, where I save up my book tokens from Christmas and my January birthday and have a wild book-buying extravaganza to give myself some presents part-way through the year. I’m pleased to say that out of the seven books I bought in that splurge, I’ve read four, am part way through a fifth and will be reading the last two for Novellas in November and Aus Reading Month next month. Not too bad!

Tory Bilski – “Wild Horses of the Summer Sun: Iceland, Freedom and the Gift of Female Friendship”

(24 June 2020, book tokens)

These were our tales, these were the times, these were the women, and this was the place. (p. 235)

The book opens with a wild countryside canter on slightly out-of-control Icelandic horses, a special and protected breed which has remained the same and isolated since the Viking settlement. No horses are allowed onto the island and if one leaves, it can’t return – they are very vulnerable to disease.

Having been a horse-mad youngster, Bilski spots a picture of Icelandic horses on the Internet at the turn of the Millennium and decides to go to Iceland to see them. And I have to say that I fell in love with them when I saw them in real life on my own first trip to Iceland in 2014, and had a wonderful time riding a feisty horse called Freya on my trip in 2015.

Once she’s been once she’s obsessed (I can understand this; I went to Iceland once a year in 2014-17 and miss it dreadfully and yearn to go back) and then meets up with a group of women, led by the older Sylvie and her friend Eva, who are planning to go to stay on a farm in the north of the country run by Sylvie’s friend Helga. This turns into an annual event, and woven into the very normal story of Tory’s life (her son presents difficulties, her father dies and her mother is claimed by dementia, she has root canal surgery) are these annual trips (not every single year, c.f. root canal surgery) with a shifting group of women.

I’m afraid the horses and riding were the main appeal to me. The group of women sometimes includes oddities and a few times a woman who Tory and her ally Viv really don’t get on with (I did wonder what she felt when she saw herself portrayed in this book, if she did, even though her behaviour isn’t kind), and the glimpses of the Iceland I know and love. There’s also a parallel portrayal of the growth in the tourism industry of Iceland, so that by the time she goes last to the farm in 2015, there are millions of tourists, Reykjavik has grown exponentially and it’s no longer considered odd to go there.

I also loved the part where Bilski talks about being the go-to person for Iceland info and how she tries not to be too gung-ho about the place when recommending it, especially if the person is only wondering about going. I smiled at the group’s love of Jane Smiley’s novel, “The Greenlanders” while Bilski has only so far read the Vinland Sagas – I found the Smiley an excellent version of the saga style but I still have so many actual sagas to read I couldn’t spend hours reading a modern idea of one!

All good things have to come to an end, the lives of the core of women shift and then Helga announces she is closing the farm and moving to Selfoss. For once, Bilski’s husband comes to Iceland with her to see what the fuss is all about – although of course it’s about getting away from her home responsibilities as much as anything else – and Helga is happy with her plants and trees in the south. It’s poignant but not done for melodrama, and a good end to this interesting and open book.

Liz with Icelandic horse Freya, April 2015. It was April, it was cold, they made us wear these boiler suits; I am short.

This was TBR Challenge 2021-22 Book 1/85 – 84 to go.