The Icelandic Yuletide is a time for two things: Reading and eating—and you can only do so much eating. Every year, during the “Jólabókaflóð,” or Christmas book flood, Icelandic publishers release a high volume of new works to fill the shelves just in time for gift-giving season. To help you suss out which books—old, and new—you should buy to put under your tree, we asked six local authors, some of whom are taking part in the Jólabókaflóð for the first time, for their favourite Icelandic novels available in English.
Birna Anna Björnsdóttir: The Great Weaver from Kashmir – Halldór Laxness
When I first read this book at age 20, I became obsessed with it. It felt fresh and exciting and relatable to someone still trying to figure out life. Laxness was only 25 when it was published, in 1927. Its style was considered Iceland’s first foray into literary modernism, and through its protagonist, Steinn Elliði, the book mocks pretentiousness in a very inimitable way. Its depiction of religion as a stand-in for art also illustrates how, for some, love and art will always be in perpetual conflict.
Birna Anna’s third novel, ‘Perlan’ (‘The Pearl’), has received much praise for its feminist anti-hero and its unveiling of the multi-layered identity of the Icelandic “skinka” (literally “ham,” a derogatory term for bleach-haired girls/women who frequent tanning salons).
Halldór Armand: Valentines – Ólafur Jóhann Ólafsson
I’ve been a fan of Ólafur Jóhann for years. The stories in ‘Valentines’ are filled with understated pain and the suffering of flawed people striving for the impossible goal of keeping their lives and relationships in order. It’s right up my alley. The style is subtle and effortless, the characters expertly crafted, and there’s an undercurrent throughout the collection that really takes hold of the reader.
Halldór Armand is the author of three novels. His latest book, ‘Aftur og aftur’ (‘Again and Again’) looks at fractured masculinity, start-up culture bravado, and online avatars in an age of constant distraction.
Jónas Reynir Gunnarsson: World Light – Halldór Laxness
One of the most beautiful texts ever written in Icelandic. The poet protagonist lays in bed for a long time, but the story is always moving. In stories, the true movement is in the characters’ inner lives, and this poet’s inner life is never still. He is always seeking beauty, the same way a drowning man seeks air. Not just any kind of beauty, but the revelation of the divine. ‘World Light’ is a dangerously ambitious symphony that’s striking even when its major instruments go silent—when a paragraph sobers up, and is replaced with eerie stillness.
Jónas Reynir burst onto the literary scene this year with three books—two poetry collections and a novel, titled ‘Millilendingin’ (‘Transit’), in which a young woman suffering from heartbreak returns to Iceland for a 24-hour layover. His poetry book, ‘Stór olíuskip’ (‘Big Oil Tankers’), won the Tómas Guðmundsson Prize.
Fríða Ísberg: Butterflies in November – Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir
Don’t be discouraged by the sugary title; a truer translation would be: ‘Rain in November.’ What I love about this novel is the refreshing characterisation of the female protagonist. She’s eccentric—a slight sociopath even. She cheats on her husband with little-to-no remorse, and runs over a goose and decides to put it in the trunk and pluck it and cook it at home. Loaded with humour and sarcasm, her story begins with a divorce before she embarks on a road trip with only a deaf child (no relation) as company.
Fríða Ísberg writes literary criticism for the TLS and is a part of the Impostor Poets poetry collective. Her highly anticipated first solo poetry collection, ‘Slitförin’ (‘The Stretchmarks’), battles against the constraints inflicted in childhood as the poet searches for a true and separate identity.
Friðgeir Einarsson: The Pets – Bragi Ólafsson
The protagonist of ‘The Pets’ spends most of the story hiding under his own bed. Without engaging, he watches his petty life turn into shambles; a course of events that could easily have been avoided if he would have done or said something to begin with. But it’s too late. It’s always too late. The story’s realistic account of the surreal events brings forth codependency, fear of conflict, anxiety, and other unfathomable personality disruptions that are curiously emblematic for the modern Icelandic psyche.
Friðgeir Einarsson is a playwright, short story writer and novelist whose latest book, ‘Formaður húsfélagsins’ (‘Chairman of the Homeowners Association’), is a grimly humorous drama about the terrors of communal living.
Yrsa Þöll Gylfadóttir: Njál’s Saga
Perhaps not a fresh and daring choice, but it’s one that bears repeating. Njál’s Saga has great characters, both male and female, and is full of conflict, love, pride and rivalry. Surprisingly, it is also very funny—mostly due to the narrator’s sparse and ironic voice, which leaves much between the lines. If you want to get to the heart and soul of Icelanders—their distant demeanour, their weird, sardonic humour, immense love and pride for their country, and megalomaniacal determination—this is a worthy guidebook.
Yrsa Þöll is an academic and novelist whose second book ‘Móðurlífið, blönduð tækni’ (‘In Utero, Mixed Media’), deals with a grown daughter struggling under the weight of the legacy left by her mother, a famous avant-garde artist who sacrificed her family on the pyres of art.
Read more about Icelandic literature here.