In Iceland, one in ten people will publish a book during their lifetime. Even though Iceland has a small population, there is an active writers’ community, and more books are published per capita than anywhere else in the world. Especially crime novel sales are booming. Iceland’s vast landscape and harsh weather have probably contributed to the rich history of storytelling. Let’s dive into some contemporary Icelandic novels.
Hotel Silence by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir
Hotel Silence is the fifth novel by author Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir. It tells the story of protagonist Jónas. Jónas is deeply unhappy with both his professional as his personal life. His wife left him, and before she did, she told him that their daughter is not his biological child. Also, his mother’s health is deteriorating, and it pains him to see dementia take over her life. Not knowing how to change things for the better, he decides to buy a one-way ticket to an unnamed war-ravaged country to end his life. After arrival, he checks into Hotel Silence. Unexpectedly, he starts to feel in control again. There are many things that demand his attention – the hotel needs work and the staff and guests of the hotel need help. After a while, Jónas has to decide if he really wants to leave his old life behind, or that he wants to give it a second chance. Hotel Silence won the Icelandic Literature Prize in 2016.
Translated by Brian FitzGibbon
Woman at 1,000 Degrees by Hallgrímur Helgason
Woman at 1,000 Degrees is written by author Hallgrímur Helgason, who also wrote the novels 101 Reykjavík (which has a movie adaption) and The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning, among others. The story is inspired by true events, following a coincidental telephone conversation Helgason had with a woman called Brynhildur Georgía Björnsson in 2006. The main character in the book, Herra, is based on Brynhildur’s biography (published in 1983), but the story is classified as fiction. The novel tells the story of an old woman who has booked her own cremation appointment (she will be burned at 1,000 degrees). Her father was one of the few Icelanders who fought alongside the Nazis in World War II, and she happened to be the granddaughter of the first president of Iceland, Mr. Sveinn Björnsson. Following her life, the reader is taken past major events of the 20th century, filled with wars and many losses. She survived, but the question is raised if surviving is really better than dying in a war. It has been published in 14 languages and was a nominee for the Nordic Council Literature Prize in 2013.
Translated by Brian FitzGibbon
Fish Have No Feet by Jón Kalman Stefánsson
Author Jón Kalman Stefánsson has published 12 novels in total. Fish Have No Feet is published in 2013 and translated into English in 2016. The story’s protagonist is Ari, a writer and publisher, who returns home to Keflavík after living in Copenhagen for two years when his father is dying. Back in his hometown, memories of his youth fill his mind – of listening to Pink Floyd and the Beatles, of befriending American soldiers, and of his first dates. In his youth, Keflavik’s livelihood depended entirely on the U.S. military base, and the presence of American military has shaped Icelandic culture ever since World War II. Fish Have No Feet tells an intimate family story, and at the same time shows how Iceland is changed by outside influences. The novel was listed on the Man Booker International Prize longlist in 2017.
Translated by Phil Roughton
Drápa – A Reykjavik Murder Mystery by Gerður Kristný
Drápa – A Reykjavik Murder Mystery is a novel based on a real murder case that author Gerður Kristný encountered while she was working as a journalist of a young woman who was lost and finally murdered in downtown Reykjavík. By telling the story of this murdered woman, the novel is about all women’s deaths. Women being disregarded by society and abused by the people closest to them is a general theme throughout the book. The story is told by using a type of verse called drápa, a form of skaldic poetry. Drápa also means killing or slaying in Icelandic, giving title of the book a double entendre. This is Viking poetry pur sang.
Translated by Rory McTurk
Snare by Lilja Sigurðardóttir
Author Lilja Sigurðardóttir is a promising crime-writer who has published four crime novels and Snare has been a worldwide bestseller. Snare tells the story of a divorced young mother named Sonia, who is struggling to provide for herself and keep custody of her son. Seeing no other options, she starts smuggling cocaine into Iceland, and quickly gets into trouble in the dark criminal underworld. But Bragi, an experienced customs officer, is her biggest enemy, as to not get caught, she has to find more and more dangerous ways to smuggle drugs. Her love affair with a prosecuted banker, Agla, in the aftermath of the financial crash, does not simplify the situation. The fast-paced plot and intriguing characters make this a refreshing crime thriller. The film rights have been bought by Palomar Pictures in California.
Translated by Quentin Bates
CoDex 1962 by Sjón (2018)
CoDex 1962 is a mythological trilogy following Leo and Jósef Loewe. The first part is a love story in which we get to know Jósef’s father Leo, a Jewish fugitive in Germany during World War II. He takes refuge in a small-town guesthouse and bonds with the maid who nurses him back to health. Together, they shape a piece of clay into a baby. The second part is a crime story. We follow Leo as he flees to Iceland with the clay baby in a box, and witness how he quickly becomes entangled in a murder mystery. And finally, in 1962, the clay baby, named Jósef, comes to life. In the third part is a science-fiction story set in modern-day Reykjavík. The now middle-aged Jósef, who grew up with a rare disease, attracts the attention of a greedy geneticist. The reader learns more about how Jósef came to be, and simultaneously, the dangerous path waiting for humankind. The book is translated into English by Victoria Cribb and is published by Sceptre.
The Wrath of Ragnarök by Þórhallur Arnórsson, Jón Páll Halldórsson, Þórir Karl Bragason (2017)
The Wrath of Ragnarök is a graphic novel spread over several books, inspired by original Norse mythology. The book starts with a retired Viking called Vikar, who is looking to live a peaceful life with his newborn. The reader follows him on a journey that will eventually cross paths with the gods of Valhalla. There, Óðinn realises Ragnarök, the destruction of the cosmos and everything in it – even the gods – is approaching. Óðinn is planning to change the gods’ destiny at any cost, thereby bringing about an age of terror and conflict known as the wolf age. The book is published in both English and Icelandic. The Wrath of Ragnarök contains the first two chapters of the novel: An Ominous Calm and A Taste of Blood.
Rupture by Ragnar Jónasson (2017)
Rupture is a Nordic noir novel set in the isolated Héðinsfjörður fjord. It’s part of the Dark Iceland series revolving around young policeman Ari Thór. Two young couples move to Héðinsfjörður but their stay ends abruptly when one of the four dies, supposedly from ingesting rat poison. Fifty years later, an old photograph is found showing the couples might have not been alone at the fjord. In a nearby town, Siglufjörður, Ari tries to find out what exactly happened, but quickly notices that the townspeople are not eager to help. Ísrún, a reporter from Reykjavík (who some readers might know from Blackout), who is investigating a case in the area, assists Ari in his search for answers. Things get even worse when a child goes missing and a man is killed, and it becomes clear that the past is still haunting the area. Rupture is a dark and mysterious thriller from one of Iceland’s most prominent crime writers.
Glacier by Ragnar Axelsson (2018)
Glacier is a photobook by Ragnar Axelsson, one of Iceland’s best-known photographers. Previously, he focused people and lifestyles in the Arctic region including Iceland, Greenland, and Siberia, with stunning portraits of disappearing lifestyles. This time, his topic is Iceland’s glaciers, landscapes devoid of people. Having grown up near glaciers and flown his plane over them many times, Ragnar developed a lifelong fascination for these natural wonders. Icelandic glaciers receded a lot in the past decades, and if the current rate keeps up, they might disappear completely in 150-200 years. Glacier is an ode to the glaciers. His previous book, The Face of the North, won the Icelandic Book Prize in 2016.
Into Oblivion by Arnaldur Indriðason (2016)
Into Oblivion is one of multiple books by Arnaldur Indriðason circling round detective Erlendur. It’s the sequel to Reykjavík Nights following Erlendur in his earlier years. Into Oblivion is set in 1979, Erlender just started as detective and is working for Marion Briem. In the Blue Lagoon, long before it was discovered by tourists, a body of a man is found. Signs on the body show that it fell from great heights and that it could have been thrown out of an airplane. But that’s not the only case he needs to work on, as he is asked to investigate the cold case of a young girl who disappeared on her way to school many years ago. Fans of Nordic noir will not be disappointed by this thrilling read.