In this case of medieval date rape and the grim consequences which follow hard upon it, Sigrid Undset created a wonderfully literate experience using the saga "voice". Although I detected slippages in tone, here and there, and felt the ending too contrived and overwrought to be pure saga, I was still swept along by this book, finishing it in a single sitting. It is short, yes, but also a very compelling narrative as it details the tribulations of two would-be lovers who are yet too proud and self-willed for their own good or for the society in which they find themselves. As with the typical viking hero, Viga-Ljot is overly confident of his own charms and impatient of results. And Vigdis, the maid he has set his heart on, is no less aloof and overbearing in her own way than that historical figure, Sigrid the Haughty, who so angered King Olaf Tryggvesson that he slapped her in the midst of their courtship and thereby sealed his doom. Viga-Ljot does much worse in this tale and his fate is thus forever bound up with a woman who cannot forget or forgive him. Like Gudrun Osvif's daughter in Laxdaela Saga, Vigdis bides her time and nurses her pain but, in the end, that pain is not assuaged by the actions she takes, for it is ultimately destructive to everyone it touches.
A good example of the saga form in modern literature indeed, and yet, despite the finely tuned prose of this novel, capturing the nuances and understatement of the saga voice with masterly strokes, there is an underlying stridency here, an almost emotional overreaching which is not, itself, true to the saga form. In some ways this book is too modern and its author's sensibility, at this juncture in her career, almost too young and unseasoned. Undset seems to be reaching for the tragic denouement of the Greek classics to end her tautly told tale rather than content herself with the flatly understated and finely nuanced wrap-up more appropriate to the saga form. But this Greek-like ending left me much colder than the drily tossed-off afterthought of a true saga might have done. And yet, for all that, Undset has here given us one of the better modern novels done in saga form. My hat is off to her.
By the way, for another really fine novel based on the old sagas, one, in fact, that I think outdoes even this one, try SAGA: A NOVEL OF MEDIEVAL ICELAND by contemporary Canadian author Jeff Janoda. Many have tried to evoke the sagas in modern prose but few have done it as well as he has. Janoda has written a contemporary novel that does genuine justice to its original source, Eyrbyggja Saga, while not succumbing to the overwrought sensibility which mars GUNNAR'S DAUGHTER at the end. If you like fiction grounded in the old Norse saga literature, then Janoda's book should be your very next stop.
SWM author of The King of Vinland's Saga
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