book reviews

Gunnar’s Daughter by Sigrid Undset: A Review

Gunnar's Daughter, by Sigrid Undset, 1909, Penguin Classics

If you’ve been reading here, you saw when I received Gunnar’s Daughter as a birthday present from my good friend M. It came wrapped in lovely paper with a large red and white print, and was tied with twine.

I was going to read it right away. It’s not a long book, especially considering there is a substantial foreword and historical and translator notes at the back of it, but either work or other books kept me from it.

I have already read and very much enjoyed Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter, which M and I affectionately refer to as KL. M introduced me to the trilogy years ago and I bought it right away and devoured it. There was no doubt in my mind about why Undset had won the 1928 Nobel Prize for it. A sweeping medieval Norwegian saga, beautifully printed and bound by Penguin, I buried myself under winter blankets and cradled hot cups of cloudberry and crowberry Inuit tea (one of each of the tea bag wrappers lies still in book, which is displayed on one of my side tables in the living room) and read that three-book volume voraciously.

So it came as a surprise when I picked up Gunnar’s Daughter (also beautifully published by Penguin with soft pages and a gorgeous cover) that I could not get into it right away. The style was seemingly different and cumbersome, and the text fraught with endnote numbers, which caused me to keep flipping to the back. I made it several pages in and put it down, thinking I would return to it later, when I felt more in the mood for it. I suspect that editing academic texts made me feel as though I needed a break from endnotes!

It wasn’t until this weekend I picked up the book again, and this time, except for the two chapters I’d read earlier (and the chapters are very short), I read the book in almost one sitting (I decided to ignore the endnote numbers and read those at the end; this did not take away from my understanding or the story). I was totally reluctant to put it down last night and so picked it up again first thing this morning while lying comfortably in bed listening to the geese that passed three times overhead and the soft-falling rain. There I finished the last few chapters.

Her first historical saga novel, set in the tenth and eleventh centuries in Norway and Iceland and published in 1909, Gunnar’s Daughter tells the story of Vigdis Gunnarsdatter, who when young meets Viga-Ljot (pronounced Yot). I don’t want to tell too much of the story, and typically in a review I don’t: you can find that information anywhere.

Let me tell you, though, that the story is fraught with hardship and tragedy, in among the triumphs. I loved how strong a woman Vigdis was (she could make a study I’m sure; probably most of the medieval Scandinavian women could, for they seemed often in some sort of charge), but ultimately I was sad about how unforgiving and hard she remained over the course of her life and what this meant in terms of the people she loved. As a reader you feel you want to direct the characters, because you know what they’re headed for, and the writing and events were such that I felt not only drawn into the story but quite emotional as well: angry, indignant, mistrustful, triumphant, sorrowful.

Not long into the story I got used to the historical style and felt it reflected a storytelling tradition, which I enjoyed, imagining old Norsemen recanting as they did tales of bravery and triumph, revenge and tragedy. I was reading what seemed a fairy tale or legend, also a moralistic story. Many times I felt KL echoed in Gunnar’s Daughter, which gave me a sense of déja vu, though KL came afterward.

Reading Gunnar’s Daughter, as short as it is, transports you out of culture, country, time, and mindset. Everything is so foreign yet so well evoked it is a great and beautiful escape. You feel the icy wind across the sea, hear the creaking of ships on the waves, smell the pines of the forests, the woodsmoke in the winter’s air. You can feel the warmth of mead and fire on the hearth, of furs that smell slightly musty. You can imagine the brightly coloured jewels and riches, feel the rough-hewn benches and tables under toughened skin. Much like KL, it is also a story and atmosphere that stays with you long after you turn the final page.

Undset was without doubt a significant woman and author for her time. I highly recommend reading her for a lesson in not only talent and skill but awesome medieval Scandinavian history (and did I mention that she writes a damn good strong woman?).

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9 Comments

  1. Marie

    I’m so, so glad you enjoyed it. :) I was really hoping you would. Did you cry at the end? I did.

    And what a great review – it’s made me want to re-read it myself.

    Reply
  2. Oh Marie,

    I loved it. I know I’ll reread it again, just like KL. Thank you so much. I knew all it would take was the right time.

    It really has stuck with me all day. Undset has such amazing capacity to create atmosphere and history, even in so short a book and with so few words!

    Reply
  3. Hi!
    Seems I popped back into Bella’s Bookshelves at just the right time. ;)

    What a beautiful review, Steph. I admit, I knew nothing of Sigrid Undset before reading this, but now I want to read Gunnar’s Daughter as well as the KL trilogy. Although I’m not Scandinavian, I feel tied to the culture because my husband is Norwegian, and so is our daughter (obviously). A historian, I’m sure he’d enjoy these novels as well. Perhaps we’ll read them together this summer!

    Your blog looks lovely, and I can’t wait to catch up on your recent posts.

    Hope all is well with you.

    Reply
  4. Rebecca! I’m so glad to see you here. How have you been? I hope well, although I imagine very busy. Me too. So much going on that I will have to update you about!

    I highly recommend reading KL and Gunnar’s Daughter. They are so very worth it, really. It may take a little bit to get used to the translations, but stick with it and very soon you will be sucked into the stories. They will stay with you long afterward.

    Keep in touch! I hope I can email you soon.

    Reply
  5. Lisa

    Just came across your website as I have been looking for a discussion on this fascinating book. I loved this book and loved how I was completely taken to another time and place. I was struck that this would make a very good opera! I don’t think I have ever read a book before that left me with that feeling. Undset reminds me of a female Quintin Tarantino of the Bloomsbury era.

    Reply

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