I’m excited to have read my first of two books for AusReading Month, hosted by Brona’s Books at This Reading Life. It took her spotting this one on my TBR shelf and letting me know that it was by one Australian by birth and one by residence for me to realise I had more than one book for this challenge this year!

It also comes under NonFiction November, AND my TBR reading challenge (in fact, it’s one of the older books on my main TBR) so all good. Certainly not a novella, though, at a hefty (but very readable) 447 pages plus 50 illustrative plates.

I bought this book as part of my 2020 Book Token Extravaganza – arrival post here and post about the Extravaganza here (I have now read or am reading 6 out of the 7 books purchased, with the final one to read this month).

Richard Fidler and Kari Gislason – “Saga Land: The Island of Stories at the Edge of the World”

(15 July 2020)

Audun and the Polar Bear is a small, finely wrought fable, but it holds many of the qualities of the great Icelandic sagas: the tale is told tersely, and contains real historical figures. The main character’s honour is central to the story, and Audun quietly holds to it, at the risk of great suffering to himself. Also typical of the sagas is the beautiful strangeness of the tale. (p. xxv)

Fidler and Gislason met when they did a radio programme together in Australia and then ended up chatting about Iceland and the sagas for ages afterwards. This book is a lovely mix of travelogue and saga retellings as they share the story of their obsession with the sagas and their two trips to Iceland, one in the summer, one in the winter, along with Kari’s interesting personal story of searching for his heritage.

Kari was born as the result of an affair between his Australian mother and Icelandic father – his father already had a family and forbade Kari’s presence to be made known. Eventually, Kari did speak up, and he met his father and bonded with his siblings (he’s written his own book about all this, which I might have succumbed and bought within moments of seeing it mentioned in this book …). Part of his father’s small legacy to him was being told that he was a direct descendant of Snorri Sturluson, the great chieftain, lawgiver and saga writer / collector, and a lot of the book a) retells Snorri’s story and b) tells the story of Kari’s slow attempt to find out if this is true – because the population of Iceland is so small, there’s a database of everyone’s genealogy going back to mediaeval times, however Kari wasn’t linked properly to his father originally.

The travelogue is excellently done, the two authors tell alternate chapters, which works really well, often looking at the same episode from both their viewpoints. In the summer, they travel to Thingvellir and the farmlands of Hliðarendi (oddly enough, they don’t visit the petrol station of the same name, which thrilled me when I was there in 2014!), then to the western dales and the fjords of the northwest. In the winter, they fill in Snorri’s areas as well as experiencing Reykjavik in the endless night. The saga retellings and the story of Snorri are really well done – accessible and modern enough to engage, but correct enough to please the expert or other obsessive. They also don’t retell WHOLE sagas, either bits of them or a sort of summary of the main points, unless they are really short, which makes the book less uneven than it sounds. There were some new-to-me sagas, and the meeting of Reagan and Gorbachev and the chess contest between Spassky and Fischer are also told in this style, which was a nice touch.

I got very excited when I saw Gunnar’s farm’s name on a service station in 2014

The writers are decent, emotionally literate family men who have a special fondness and affinity with the sometimes dark and blood-soaked sagas of a different age and place. Their love for the topic really shines through, as does their friendship. This is a really special and lovely book, and one I will no doubt ready again. Heartily recommended, whether you know the sagas and Iceland or not.

There are pictures printed straight onto the page throughout the book and a set of colour plates, also on the standard paper, at the front and back. It was lovely to see places I’ve been and photographed (e.g. Snorri’s hot pot) and, along with watching Alexander Armstrong’s TV series on Iceland, made me desperate to get back there for a fifth time.

This was TBR Challenge 2021-22 Book 11/85 – 74 to go – and it was part of Nonfiction November and AusReading Month!