Title: The Glass Woman
Writer: Caroline Lea
Publishing House: Michael Joseph (Penguin Books)
Date of Publication: February 7th 2019
Rating: 3 stars
”But the knowledge of the body stayed, like the blood-spattered scenes at the end of the Sagas: those age-old, heat-filled stories, which are told to children from birth and fill every Icelander with an understanding of violence.”
Ιceland, during the 17th century. A young woman, Rósa, loves the sagas of the old and the legends of her beautiful, untamed country. But times demand a husband for every woman and she obeys, following Jón to a land of whispers and shadows, where suspicions and prejudices keep the witchcraft accusations alive and her husband, with his harsh, secretive nature does little to put Rósa’s mind at ease. And what are those noises that can be heard from the locked attic?
”A woman made of glass and stillness: perfect but easily shattered.”
Lea cleverly sets the story in Iceland, a country that fascinates us all, and the result is powerful at times. Her prose faithfully and vividly captures the wild nature, the menacing beauty of the sea and the wind, and the harsh, often cruel, nature of the villagers. If you are one of those who love the sagas, if you know the secrets and gifts of Nature, you are in danger of being accused of witchcraft and we all know where that leads, don’t we?
The themes that move the story forward are what we usually encounter in the majority of Historical Fiction novels. The isolation of a woman who is more advanced socially and remains a stranger in the community of her husband. The limited access to her own environment, allowed only to ”stretch her fingers” as far as her husband’s wishes go, the yearning for the life she left behind. The danger that comes from a man’s dubious behaviour, the fear of an unknown threat of the past, the exploitation towards women whose defenses are weakened for a number of reasons. These are the issues addressed in the novel with considerable success and the setting definitely enhances the overall reading experience. However, this is not enough, in my opinion.
The dialogue and the main character are not satisfying, as far as I’m concerned. The dialogue is average, at best. Most of the times and when ”spoken” by Rósa, it is bad. It is the stuff of literary nightmare. How many ”I-…”s do we need in a 300+ page novel? Or interactions that are cut mid-sentence to show how exhausted and exasperated and indecisive the character is? I mean, read this and make of it what you will…
”I am…well. I…I…I…must go.”
Over and over and over again. It makes Rósa appear weaker than she is as she’s always ”trailing off, helplessly” or ”nodding weakly.” It drove me mad! And it is a pity because the story and the descriptive passages are perfectly written. I would have liked to have Jón as the main POV. As it is, Rósa is a character with zero personality. She is a ”thing”. Not a woman, not anything. And how many times do we need to have the word baðstofa in italics? We know what it means!
To make comparisons with Burial Rites is a joke. It is a sacrilege. There we had a strong heroine and a truly mystical story. Here, we have a weakling, a trembling, passive idiot that is fortunately surrounded by interesting characters or else this would have been an actual ordeal. The plot is beautifully written even though it is predictable, saved by the Icelandic setting, and the latter third of the novel is very, very good. So, 3 stars, unfortunately due to the irritation I felt every time Rósa opened her mouth (trembling, don’t forget…). This is a good novel with many beautiful moments to offer, but it is nothing groundbreaking, nothing I have never read before. My expectations, strengthened by the reviews of writers I adore, weren’t fulfilled…