By Christina Sunley
Published March 2009 by St Martin's Press
Freya is the daughter of an Icelandic-Canadian and an American. Her father is dead, her mother has kept her away from her Canadian relatives for eight years. Then one summer her mother finally relents and the two travel to Gimli, where Freya finally gets to meet her grandmother (the keeper of the family records) and her unpredictable aunt, Birdie. Almost as soon as they have arrived, Freya accidentally breaks almost all of her grandmother's tea cups. When her mother sees what has happened, and the blood on Freya, she passes out, hitting her head. Although she eventually comes home from the hospital, she is never the same and Freya spends the rest of her life feeling that her mother's condition is her fault and it entirely changes the person she becomes.
Birdie is intense about maintaining the family's Icelandic heritage, particularly that of the writers. She is appalled that Freya does not speak the language or know the myths and makes it her job to indoctrinate the young girl during the summers. Freya absorbs it all and, despite Birdie's erratic behavior, adores her aunt. Until the summer when Birdie tricks Freya into joining her on a terrifying journey, Freya turns her back on all things Icelandic.
Twenty years later, Freya is leading an isolated and lonely life in Manhattan, when she is called back to Gimli to help celebrate her grandmother's birthday. While there, she uncovers the tip of a major family secret. Unraveling the secret will require a trip to Iceland, across it's lava fields and vast glaciers, until Freya uncovers the shocking truth.
This book is a finely crafted exploration of the immigrant experience. Like the great poets she is writing about, Sunley's writing is often poetic. The plot is unique, the characters intriguing. Although I had figured out the major twist before I reached it, it was no less devastating and Sunley was able to surprise throughout with smaller twists.
This is Sunley's debut novel. Her family history is Icelandic but she was not raised with family, not raised with the family stories that fill Freya's life. But she's heard enough to know that there was a story here and headed off to Iceland to do research. And it shows. At times it can feel like Sunley must have included everything she learned and I'll admit that there were places that I began skimming. But two days after I finished this book, I say a documentatry on t.v. set in Iceland. Iceland was exactly what I had been picturing in my head throughout the book. And it was then I realized what a superb job Sunley had done.
For more on this book and an interview with the author, check out Bookworm With A View here.