Writer: Kim Leine
Publishing House: Atlantic Books
Date of Publication: January 7th 2016 (first published 2012)
Rating: 5 stars
‘’And then He is gone. She stands alone, high up above the settlement, which is enshrouded by fog. It is the middle of the night, yet light. A pair of ravens rumble in the air and caw.’’
This novel was an absolute impulse buy. I’m ashamed to admit that I wasn’t aware of its existence, I don’t know how this came to be.So, while I was browsing in the bookshop, I noticed the word ‘’fjord’’. I took the beautiful paperback in my hands and after reading the words ‘’Greenland’’ and ‘’18th century’’, I decided that it was coming home with me. I read a number of the reviews here and they were lower than low. And I didn’t mind because I know that ‘’gritty’’ and ‘’dark’’ meant that this novel was right up my alley. And it was. I loved it, I consider it one of the most memorable additions in my collection but I think that this is not a novel for everyone. Its reality is so harsh and cruel and vulgar and difficult to stomach.
Morten is a man with an army of demons glued on his back. A physician and a doctor, a scholar and a servant of the Crown, he is sent to the colony to catechize the Greenlanders.There he finds much more than he has bargained for. He faces issues related to religion, politics, power, relationships, class and sexual implications in an era and a land that are as fascinating as they are unforgiving. As haunting as they are violent. Through his eyes, we see the changes of a population that struggles to retain its identity, standing on religious crossroads.
‘’They come here with their guns and their warrants and their chains and their stories of children drowning. But we are not children, we are grown men and women and this is our country! We shall do as we please in our own country!’
In my opinion, amidst the ocean of themes, the focal point is the difference between freedom and isolation. Habakkuk and Mary Magdalene preach for a life close to God but on the people’s conditions and their need to preserve some parts of their heathen past. They want to be christened because of their love for God not because they are in need of a priest or a mad king to dictate their life. And if they don’t do it, they may call themselves ‘’free’’ but they are isolated, expelled. The Danish men in power are unable to understand this and they cause misery and pain, brandishing their laws of injustice. The conquerors have little respect for those who consider weak and unworthy of their care and attention.The natives, the poor, even their own wives who try to retain their last scraps of self-dignity.
The writing is captivating. Naturally, this is a highly subjective view but I deeply appreciate the fact that the novel doesn’t shy away from depicting the vile times in all their horrible, muddy colours. Yes, there are descriptions of daily bodily functions, scenes of violent sexual nature that may make you feel uncomfortable and this is why I said that this isn’t a book suitable to every reader’s taste. This is a dark world and there are people who wish to make it darker to suit their purposes.
Speaking of characters, the cast is fascinating if obviously twisted. Morten is such an interesting character. He struggles to do the right thing-according to his principles, at least- but there are always obstacles. He is neither bad nor good, neither innocent nor guilty. He is a human being. Habakuk plays the role of the self-appointed religious leader well and the Trader is quite the despicable villain of the story. However, I think that the ones that truly shine are the female characters. Mary is considerate, calm, her dreams make the community of Eternal Fjord grow and prosper. Sofie is the mother, the woman of the people, the wife and the observer. Madame Kragstedt is the one who has been wronged, who has been craving love and trust and yet, her true motives remain ambiguous and controversial. And then, we have Lydia, the ‘’widow’’, who has suffered terribly in body and in spirit. A quiet, fascinating, tormented shadow, a human being who belongs nowhere.
This is a very particular novel. Leine’s writing is raw and dark but there are moments of beauty and a light hidden in heavy clouds. You will feel transported to an era of dark deeds and dark souls, to a land of wild, primitive beauty that is coveted for its wealth and hated for its different beliefs. My idea of Historical Fiction is to be faithful to the time depicted, to be realistic, to break boundaries and rules. I don’t want a story of beautified, heroic deeds. History isn’t made like this. I don’t want white-washed motives and boring characters dressed in pretty dresses and powdered wigs. Historical Fiction isn’t about tenderness and romanticism. The way I see it, it is about avoiding the faults of the past. And Leine’s novel provided a thoroughly satisfying result. You just have to proceed with caution…
‘’I dreamt that we are to live in peace and tolerance with one another’’, she says. He seems disappointed. ‘’Is that all?’’ ‘’It is the greatest of all dreams’’, she says.