In many ways, Iceland’s Bell isn’t a modern novel. And that is its great strength.

ICELAND’S BELL

The integrity and vitality of Icelandic culture, as subtly celebrated by the Nobel-winning author (1902–98) of Independent People (1946) and, most recently, World Light (2002).

Laxness’s previously untranslated three-part novel (1943–46) is set in the late 17th to early 18th century, when Iceland was effectively a Danish colony—and its initiating action is in fact the prosecution of saturnine farmer Jon Hreggvidsson (a cynical misanthrope akin to Independent People’s prickly protagonist Bjartur) for having insulted Denmark’s king. Hreggvidsson is also (falsely) accused of murder, a slander that motivates his escape from prison and subsequent efforts to clear his name through litigation. He’s encouraged and defended by magistrate’s daughter Snaefridur Eydalin (one of Laxness’s great women), a proud, stalwart beauty who herself escapes an unhappy marriage (albeit through widowhood) and grows into a fierce embodiment of her country’s independence. This transformation occurs through her increasingly intimate relationship with Arnas Arnaeus, an antiquarian professor and failed political idealist (modeled on a real historical figure) obsessed with creating an authoritative collection of indigenous manuscripts and documents. This is the most resolutely Icelandic of Laxness’s work—and it’s probably safe to assume that its emphasis on Denmark’s threats to his homeland’s sovereignty conceals a warning about the perils of a mid-20th-century world dominated by acquisitive global powers. But if Laxness’s characters preach and pontificate, their very human (and often extremely amusing) foibles imbue them with extraordinary energy. Furthermore, the intricacy with which these flinty souls are set into contrast and conflict, and the tenacity with which they cling to endangered and compromised ways of life give this a fabulistic texture quite reminiscent of the classic sagas that influenced all of their author’s best books.

In many ways, Iceland’s Bell isn’t a modern novel. And that is its great strength.

Pub Date: Oct. 14, 2003

ISBN: 1-4000-3425-6

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Vintage

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2003

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Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

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CIRCE

A retelling of ancient Greek lore gives exhilarating voice to a witch.

“Monsters are a boon for gods. Imagine all the prayers.” So says Circe, a sly, petulant, and finally commanding voice that narrates the entirety of Miller’s dazzling second novel. The writer returns to Homer, the wellspring that led her to an Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles (2012). This time, she dips into The Odyssey for the legend of Circe, a nymph who turns Odysseus’ crew of men into pigs. The novel, with its distinctive feminist tang, starts with the sentence: “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” Readers will relish following the puzzle of this unpromising daughter of the sun god Helios and his wife, Perse, who had negligible use for their child. It takes banishment to the island Aeaea for Circe to sense her calling as a sorceress: “I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open. I stepped into those woods and my life began.” This lonely, scorned figure learns herbs and potions, surrounds herself with lions, and, in a heart-stopping chapter, outwits the monster Scylla to propel Daedalus and his boat to safety. She makes lovers of Hermes and then two mortal men. She midwifes the birth of the Minotaur on Crete and performs her own C-section. And as she grows in power, she muses that “not even Odysseus could talk his way past [her] witchcraft. He had talked his way past the witch instead.” Circe’s fascination with mortals becomes the book’s marrow and delivers its thrilling ending. All the while, the supernatural sits intriguingly alongside “the tonic of ordinary things.” A few passages coil toward melodrama, and one inelegant line after a rape seems jarringly modern, but the spell holds fast. Expect Miller’s readership to mushroom like one of Circe’s spells.

Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

Pub Date: April 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-316-55634-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

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ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE

Doerr presents us with two intricate stories, both of which take place during World War II; late in the novel, inevitably, they intersect.

In August 1944, Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a blind 16-year-old living in the walled port city of Saint-Malo in Brittany and hoping to escape the effects of Allied bombing. D-Day took place two months earlier, and Cherbourg, Caen and Rennes have already been liberated. She’s taken refuge in this city with her great-uncle Etienne, at first a fairly frightening figure to her. Marie-Laure’s father was a locksmith and craftsman who made scale models of cities that Marie-Laure studied so she could travel around on her own. He also crafted clever and intricate boxes, within which treasures could be hidden. Parallel to the story of Marie-Laure we meet Werner and Jutta Pfennig, a brother and sister, both orphans who have been raised in the Children’s House outside Essen, in Germany. Through flashbacks we learn that Werner had been a curious and bright child who developed an obsession with radio transmitters and receivers, both in their infancies during this period. Eventually, Werner goes to a select technical school and then, at 18, into the Wehrmacht, where his technical aptitudes are recognized and he’s put on a team trying to track down illegal radio transmissions. Etienne and Marie-Laure are responsible for some of these transmissions, but Werner is intrigued since what she’s broadcasting is innocent—she shares her passion for Jules Verne by reading aloud 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. A further subplot involves Marie-Laure’s father’s having hidden a valuable diamond, one being tracked down by Reinhold von Rumpel, a relentless German sergeant-major.

Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

Pub Date: May 6, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-4767-4658-6

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: March 6, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2014

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