Independent People: The book you need to read about Iceland


[Feature photo: Bryan Pocius]

Title: Independent People, by Halldor Laxness

The skinny: Having spent eighteen years in humiliating servitude, Bjartur wants nothing more than to raise his flocks unbeholden to any man. But Bjartur’s spirited daughter wants to live unbeholden to him. What ensues is a battle of wills that is by turns harsh and touching, elemental in its emotional intensity and intimate in its homely detail.

Why you need to read it: If you’re going to Iceland, it’s an essential read. Halldor Laxness is like a god of literature over there, and he once won a Nobel Prize for his craft. Reading this book will give you a little insight about how Iceland’s landscape really shapes its people. They’re a tough ‘ol group of northern folk, and they have survived (and continue to survive) the likes of isolation, volcanoes, and severe winters.

If you’ve also got a hankering for some poetic writing, Independent People delivers. Laxness’ lyrical writing is like honey: slow, sweet, and natural. Like this:

“Shortly afterwards it started raining, very innocently at first, but the sky was packed tight with cloud and gradually the drops grew bigger and heavier, until it was autumn’s dismal rain that was falling—rain that seemed to fill the entire world with its leaden beat, rain suggestive in its dreariness of everlasting waterfalls between the planets, rain that thatched the heavens with drabness and brooded oppressively over the whole countryside, like a disease, strong in the power of its flat, unvarying monotony, its smothering heaviness, its cold, unrelenting cruelty. Smoothly, smoothly it fell, over the whole shire, over the fallen marsh grass, over the troubled lake, the iron-grey gravel flats, the sombre mountain above the croft, smudging out every prospect.”

What I learned from it: Bjartur might actually be the most frustrating character in literary history. He’s stubborn beyond measure, incestuous, and completely sexist. But by the time you close the book, you’ll wonder, “Did I really just sympathize with that character for 500 pages?” Kinda like the hit TV show Dexter and wanting to make out with a serial killer.

I admire any author’s ability to turn a vile character into a perfect example of human weakness and flaw.

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