Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset

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I wasn’t sure how I’d get on with a 900 page novel set in 14th century Norway; but this is absolutely superb. Had it been written by an English-speaking author, I think it’d be ranked right up there as one of those books which everyone’s read or feels that they ought to have read.

It’s actually a trilogy, following the life of the eponymous heroine from her early childhood through her controversial marriage, the births of her children, her family’s political, financial and personal troubles, her widowhood and eventually through to her death. It’s been translated into rather archaic English, whereas apparently it was written in very clear Norwegian (Bokmal, presumably), but I rather liked the style of language. It was also apparently quite controversial in its day – it’s hardly Lady Chatterley’s Lover, but I can see how some of it might have been considered a bit shocking when it was first published, in the early 1920s.

I wouldn’t say that it was a novel of Norway in the way that Gone With The Wind is a novel of the Deep South or even the way that The Thorn Birds is a novel of Australia .. although you’d think it would be, being written so soon after Norwegian independence. However, it is an excellent portrayal of medieval Norway, of its climate, lifestyle, culture and in particular its religious beliefs. Religion and the way that Kristin struggles to come to terms with the controversial circumstances surrounding her marriage form a big part of the book, written by a Lutheran who converted to Catholicism.

It’s the story of a time, and a woman, and issues which would be familiar to anyone in any time. It won the Nobel prize for Literature, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s just a shame that it’s not better known outside Norway. Very highly recommended.

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