Friday, 31 December 2010

Fair Islanders

I have to confess I am not terribly fond of twentieth-century novels that are set in the Viking and Norse periods. I'm not sure why, but I think mainly because they are so predictable. I'll refrain from naming and shaming any of those that I have begun but been quite unable to finish. But there was one exception: a few years ago, soon after it came out, I read Margaret Elphinstone's The Sea Road, and found it enjoyable, both as a novel, and as a believable depiction of the world at that time.
I've now been using the Christmas break to catch up on the first novel she ever wrote, Islanders, derived from her own experiences of living in Shetland, which included bird-watching on Fair Isle and doing archaeology at Barbara Crawford's Papa Stour dig. Both of these islands feature in the novel, which is mostly set on Fair Isle in the twelfth century. It's an accomplished novel, introducing a range of likeable and (from a modern point of view) believable characters, and has some good ethnographic descriptions of the daily life and grind on a small island where the diet is definitely not for vegetarians. There is some violence, but much less than you would expect, and overall the picture is rather cosy, despite the harsh living conditions. It's very much a woman's view of the late Viking Age. There is little or no saga pastiche (the downfall of many other 'Viking' novelists), but the author rather skilfully weaves in lots of allusions to both sagas and poetry, some obvious, some less so, showing that she has done her homework, both in reading the literature, and in understanding how it might have worked in that period. It's a satisfyingly, but not excessively, long book, and the end leaves you wanting to know more - unfortunately Elphinstone never wrote the sequel.
So, the overall verdict is a good read with which to while away the long winter evenings, even if you are allergic to 'Viking' novels.


  1. I have just started reading The Sea Road, it is very beautifully written and a break from all the 'I am Viking, I smash your face' stereotypical novels. It is one of many books I ordered online after searching for 'Viking/Norse historical fiction'. Cringe. I fear I may have started with the best.

  2. Well, I haven't read a huge number of such books, so there might be other gems to be discovered. If you do, let me know!

  3. I love to read Viking romance novels. I've learned a lot about history too from those books.
    Okay, stop laughing at me. Those books are great fun to read.