A grim historical novel of Norse-settled Greenland.
In her debut, Lindbergh ambitiously imagines the harsh, aggressive world of the Vikings, at the moment when old beliefs are giving way to new. There is not much pillaging and only one rape, but that event is the book’s fulcrum, a savage episode in a story more memorable for its dour suffering than its driving plot. Three flawed females narrate it, each shaped by a different set of beliefs. Irish slave Katla, daughter of Christians, is the rape victim, her beauty ruined by the brutality of her attacker, Torvard, her master’s son. To suppress the shameful episode, she is sold to Thorbjorg, a wealthy witch/seer/healer, versed in the rituals of the pagan gods, and a member of the group sailing to Greenland to establish a new settlement. Katla gives birth to a hated girl, Bibrau, a changeling who is trained by Thorbjorg in the business of spells and runes but whose impulse, unlike Thorbjorg’s, is malign. Lindbergh dwells lengthily on mood and misery: Plague decimates the community and Katla’s love for a freeman, Ossur, is continually thwarted. The cold, malodorous Viking way of life is evoked in an awkward, archaic language that veers between translationese and rough poetry (with hints of Yoda-speak): “Borne his hate, have I.” The last quarter of the book picks up some momentum while retaining the gloom. A Christian priest arrives and buys Katla’s freedom, enabling her marriage to Ossur. Christianity spreads quickly and even wicked Torvard converts. But Bibrau, bent on unhappiness for Katla, first arranges Ossur’s mysterious death on a hunting trip with Torvard, then harms Katla’s new baby.
A long, ill-shaped, bleak but atmospheric take of the Middle Ages.