‘Unraveled,’ the debut novel of seasoned journalist, translator, author, and blogger Alda Sigmundsdóttir, opens on the brink of calamity—the sort of world-changing upheaval whose warning signs, in retrospect, seem so obvious, but which completely elude those involved until it’s much too late. The year is 2008, and Frida Lowe, the wife of a British diplomat, has just returned to Iceland after 12 years’ absence. Struggling with the ghosts of her difficult childhood, the last-gasps of a failing marriage, and a pervasive lack of confidence, Frida’s own personal meltdown coincides with the kreppa, the financial crisis which crippled Iceland’s economy and sent the entire nation into its own bout of soul-searching and regeneration.
For Frida, the past is, as the saying goes, but a prologue to the growth and change that her future promises. And so, much of the novel’s first chapters are spent in flashback, examining the defining moments in Frida’s life which have led her to her present situation. This backstory is not strictly necessary from a narrative standpoint, but it is so richly realised that it creates a genuine intimacy with the character, a context which allows the reader to see all of her behaviour in a clearer light. Alda takes the same approach with the historical elements of her novel: a pivotal scene takes place just after the two airplanes were flown into New York City’s World Trade Center. This event obviously sets about serious historical consequences, but in the context of the novel, it also has a profound impact on Frida and her relationship with her husband. With this gift for hindsight, ‘Unraveled’ can be forgiven for occasionally veering from its present-day plotline into melodrama, although even these unexpected twists are grounded in retrospective revelations. Looking backwards, everything falls into place.
Playing narrative tragedy off of so recent, so fraught, and so controversial an historical moment is an ambitious project to be sure, but Alda handles it with balance and clarity, and no wonder. Not only did she spend six years good-naturedly providing non-Icelanders with a window into Iceland’s culture and political landscape via her beloved blog The Iceland Weather Report, she has also published ‘Living Inside a Meltdown,’ a collection of interviews with Icelanders about the financial crisis. Moreover, as an Icelander who spent over 20 years living outside the country, Alda has a unique perspective—she, like her main character Frida—can be both inside of Icelandic society and also maintain a bit of distance from it. This gives her writing—from her humorous essays on the Icelandic character (‘The Little Book of Icelanders’) and her retellings of traditional Icelandic folktales (‘Icelandic Folk Legends’), to this, her first novel—a welcoming quality, an awareness that certain truisms (or generalisations, depending on your perspective) about the Icelandic character are helpful to have explained.
Occasionally, these snappy factoids (ranging in topic from Icelanders’ insistence on hygienic bathing rituals and their predilection for arriving at the last minute, to the renowned independence of Icelandic women) read a bit awkwardly, although Alda appears to be in on the joke: “You’re giving me the Icelandic Tourist Board spiel,” Frida teases, after being warned about the unpredictability of Icelandic nature. “Oh, sorry,” comes the reply. “I forget that I’m not showing a foreigner around.”