The Ice Lands is the second novel by Icelandic author Steinar Bragi, a critically acclaimed poet and author in his native land. Translated by Lorenza Garcia, the novel takes as its focus two couples, all in their thirties, who have been affected by Iceland’s financial crisis. We meet reckless Egill, recovering alcoholic Hrafn, and their partners, Anna and Vigdis. The quartet decide to embark upon a camping trip; the weather and the poor visibility which it brings mean that the Jeep in which they are travelling crashes into a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. When they meet the couple who live inside said farmhouse, the premise heightens somewhat: ‘… the isolated dwelling is inhabited by a mysterious elderly couple who inexplicably barricade themselves inside every night. As past tensions within the group rise to the surface, the merciless weather blocks every attempt at escape, forcing them to ask difficult questions: who has been butchering animals near the house? What happened to the abandoned village nearby where bones lie strewn across the ground? And most importantly, will they return home?’ A Swedish publication, Corren, deemed the novel ‘Iceland’s Twin Peaks’.
The novel’s overall review score is quite poor, I felt, standing at 2.84 out of 5 on Goodreads. This made me a little sceptical, I must say, but I love Icelandic literature, and was determined to give it a fair chance. I felt a definite comradeship with all of the reviewers who have marked this a two- or one-star read quite early on, however; the dialogue is rather dull, and whilst the story is what really drives the whole onwards, it has not been overly well executed.
Bragi’s opening paragraph captures Iceland’s darkness effectively, yet rather simply: ‘Over the highlands all was still. The shadows on the horizon darkened, growing sharper against the sky, before dissolving into the night’. Sadly, the writing never really regains this quiet power, and an inconsistency is visible throughout. The prose is very much of the telling rather than the showing variety, which gives the whole an element of dullness, and which renders the reader (or rendered me, at least) rather impatient for something to happen. Bragi is very matter-of-fact, and a lot of the details discussed or included feel superfluous. It’s just quite a boring book, and excerpts of prose such as the following would encourage me to avoid the work in question: ‘Through the open door of the barn they glimpsed bales of hay wrapped in green and white plastic. In the yard in front of the barn stood a sand-blown Willys jeep. The old woman was crouching beside one of the wheels in a pair of grubby overalls, poking a tool under the body of the vehicle. Clearly she was in charge of more than the housework’.
The Ice Lands had a lot of potential, due not only to its setting, but to the intrigue of its plot. Not a great deal else occurs that is not described in the book’s blurb, and it caused this particular reader to give up around a third of the way through. Had an author such as Halldor Laxness used a similar plot in his fiction, I imagine that it would be incredibly compelling, and quite difficult to put down.