MEN AT AXLIR by Dominic Cooper


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Be prepared, if you tackle this historical crime novel of 18th-century Iceland, to take notes as you go along. It isn't only the Icelandic names that generate confusion--the Thorsteinssons and Thingvellirs and Vestmannaeyjars and Haflidadottirs. There's also Cooper's off-putting method of telling the central story here--about a real historical murder in 1783, a young girl (Sunnefa) accused of incest with her brother but killed by a Danish sheriff she'd been raped by; Cooper cuts back and ahead incessantly, making it almost impossible to know before two or three pages into each section where you are or whom you're with. So the tale of Sunnefa's death (apparently, in Iceland, as folklorically popular as our Lizzie Borden story), plus the corollary rivalry between two country sheriffs (Sunnefa's murderer, Hans Wium, and the right-crusading Petur Thorsteinsson), becomes painfully knotty. But there's a counterpoint to all this tangle of plot, and it's a substantial one: Cooper's truly aerial and fulsome feel for the Icelandic landscape as it was during the miserable, late 18th century--volcanic eruptions, lava flows, famine of the populace, smallpox epidemics. This bleak scenery is surveyed unsparingly in all its harshness. A remote, difficult sliver of historical melodrama, then, almost offset and justified by Cooper's touch for narrative landscape.

Pub Date: Feb. 15th, 1979
Publisher: St. Martin's