This author has a way with words and very credibly weaves the mythic & legendary tales of the old Norse folk (as we have these through the medium of 12th & 13th century Icelandic saga literature) into a meandering and sometimes interesting speculative essay on the experience of exploration & discovery, as recorded in the old sagas (both of the Icelanders & of the Eskimos of Greenland). But whatever else this book is, and Vollman's rendering of some of the old Norse legendry is quite nice, it is most definitely NOT a novel. There is no plot here, no development of a tale out of a person or persons' experiences, no imaginary world somehow made flesh through the medium of events told or re-told by a storyteller of any sort. In fact, except for the fact that this is a compendium of fictions and mental meanderings in prose, there is nothing here to even suggest that this writing is properly to be called a novel. There IS, on the other hand, an interesting stream of words here which occasionally seems compelling but which rarely enwraps us and which, in fact, grows quite tiring at times, what with all its talk of ice shirts and blue shirts and bear shirts, etc. The shirt metaphor, in fact, is apparently Mr. Vollman's way of describing an attitude/point of view which informs some of his characters' world views ("blue" for death-oriented, as in the symbolism of the old sagas themselves, "ice" for cold indifference to others, "bear" for dangerous, overweening madness which poses harm to those around us).
It seems that Vollman is here eager to make a comment on the ugliness of European colonization of the "New World" and what it did to the innocent indigenous folk they found here, as exemplified, in one vignette, by the Eskimo father who rescues his son from cold-hearted Norse kidnappers in Greenland and then, regrettably, kills the child for fear of contamination which cannot be undone. If only those unenlightened Norse had not meddled with the pristine, good-hearted natives! This book, in the end, is tendentious and tedious and just plain heavy-handed. And, as Gertrude Stein once said of her native town, "there's no there there."
I came to this book because of a bad review I saw of Jane Smiley's Greenlanders (a saga-like novel of the last days of the Norse colony in Greenland) in which the reviewer took Ms. Smiley to task for her prose and urged the interested reader to try Vollman's The Ice Shirt, instead, for a really good rendering of saga material. Well, allow me to attempt to reverse that rather silly judgement here. Smiley did it well; on the other hand, I'm not sure what Mr. Vollman has done. But, at the least, he has not written an historical novel. -- Stuart W. Mirsky email@example.com