The book begins with childbirth and a shipwreck. But cutting far deeper than a simple romantic adventure story, ‘On the Cold Coasts’ transports us back to fifteenth century Iceland where blizzards start in the blink of an eye. Ragna, the teenage daughter of a respected, land-owning lawman is seduced by an English sailor, the sole survivor of a shipping disaster. After conceiving a bastard child, Ragna brings disgrace on her family and is forced to break off her engagement to Thorkell, a young man of wealth and ambition.
Ten years later, Ragna becomes housekeeper for the newly arrived English Bishop John Craxton. Taking her son Michael with her, she moves to the Bishop’s residence, only to discover Thorkell is there too, working as a priest and steward. They are drawn together again, this time in a torrid and passionate affair.
The personal dramas unfolding around Hólar are woven into actual historical events. In Icelandic history, the fifteenth century is known as the English century and features ‘cod wars’ prior to those of the 1970s. The English fished in the rich Icelandic waters, traded, established several fishing stations, hired local people and paid well. With wealth to be made, there were splits, factions, fights and skirmishes. Amongst the perpetrators were corrupt church officials who used force, harassment and outrages in attempts to grab economic and political control.
The book is fierce in its engagement with male power and violence, a world where men devise their schemes and women simply obey. While society tolerated churchmen having mistresses and producing illegitimate offspring, women who broke the rules would be forever stained. Any social power women had is expressed through dreams, potions, and premonitions such as those experienced by Ragna when she stares at a moon that turns blood red.
The characters in the story are well drawn. While seeing himself as one of Christ’s most humble brothers, the Bishop of Hólar lives surrounded by tapestries, writing desks, gold candle holders and curtains with gold stitching. Meanwhile many of his flock, unjustly punished through the jurisdiction of church law, live in hovels and wear only the clothes they stand up in.
There’s a nice touch of humour when the impoverished Gudridur begs that her church fine be lifted and curtseys before the Bishop in deep humility and shame. When he removes her debt, Gudridur upon withdrawing “was more bold than when she first arrived, being now a debt free woman and she gave only a half curtsy when she left.”
The tale gathers pace, there’s action packed drama. Ragna survives it all and comes to understand that love is a lesson in self-knowledge, a tiny flame fluttering in the darkness of the soul.
‘On the Cold Coasts,’ excellently translated from the original Icelandic into English by Alda Sigmundsdóttir, is a gripping read, a real page-turner. Buy it and enjoy!
Translated by Alda Sigmundsdóttir
Publisher: Amazon Crossing 2012
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