Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 22, 2022

The Sorrow Stone, by Kári Gíslason

In some ways, Kári Gíslason’s The Sorrow Stone makes a good follow-up to Saga Land with Richard Fidler.  Those retellings of some of the most famous Icelandic sagas created a different landscape for readers of Nordic literature.  #NordicNoir sites its grisly serial killings in bleak snowy landscapes, enabling secrets to be buried under ice and snow. The bodies are revealed only when it melts, with the clear implication that the next snows will lead to covering up more violence and more death and more vengeance. (And another series for a misunderstood TV detective to solve.) Saga Land, however, showed us a landscape of farms and farming, and Gíslason builds on this in The Sorrow Stone by showing his readers daily life during the passage of the seasons, the cyclic preparations for winter, and the dust and scratches on the hands of people who work the land.

Unfortunately, to remain true to the sagas from which it derives, The Sorrow Stone perpetuates the idea of a society where family feuds lead to betrayal and vengeance.

The Sorrow Stone is the story of Disa, a character derived from two medieval sagas based on real events, The Saga of Gisli and Eyrbyggia Saga.  In a sideline to main events these sagas mention the 10th century story of Thordis Sursdottir, who was exiled to Haukadal in the Westfjords after her brother’s dispute with a neighbour.  In expanding the story to make this woman not only the centre of the story but also to redeem her, Gíslason has renamed Thordis as Disa, and her son Snorri Thorgrimsson as Sindri.

For the first time in my reading life, I became aware that book design can contribute to, or detract from comprehension of the text.  The Sorrow Stone is a dual timeline narrative: it begins with Disa and Sindri’s flight from her act of vengeance, and as it traces their progress towards what they hope will be refuge, the backstory that led to events is revealed.  Not chapter by chapter, but in segments separated from the flight narrative by what I assume is a small Nordic rune. A rune that is easy to overlook when it’s at the bottom of a page, leading to disorientating confusion between the present and the backstory.  It’s a book with a complex plot line anyway, and as Catherine Ford noted in her (paywalled) review at the SMH 

Who lusted after/initiated sex with/betrayed/murdered whom, and when and why, is often related with intimacy and sensual detail in the moment, but is set adrift in the novel’s structural problems.

Ford says that she became ‘lost’ even though she took notes, and I did too, puzzled for far too long before Disa is identifiable as the central character in both storylines, and none too sure about who it was who’d been murdered, never mind why.  Reading became more a matter of wanting to resolve the puzzle rather than being engrossed in the story.

When I read Saga Land, I noted that (to quote my own review):

What is interesting about Saga Land is Fidler’s reaction to the culture of vengeance in this society and Gíslason’s expertise in placing these tales in context.  Viking society, despite recent scholarship to redress its reputation, was violent and much given to settling old scores that persist from generation to generation.  And although the authors make it clear that the sagas are family stories, based on real life, it all seems so long ago that the grisly bits don’t have the same impact as they might in contemporary stories about serial killers.  The inclusion of tales of magic and sorcery lends itself to the comforting notion that perhaps these acts of violence have been exaggerated over the centuries.

In The Sorrow Stone, however, there is no magic or sorcery to alleviate the violence, except perhaps for some minor female soothsaying which might just as readily be an intelligent woman recognising patterns of behaviour.  By the end of the novel, despite its setting in time and place, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that this is just another tale of vengeance, a response to betrayal that is just not acceptable to a contemporary reader.

Update 26/5/22 (and thank you to Liz Dexter (see comments) for the reminder to add other reviews!):

For other reviews see The Newtown Review of Books where Ann Skea found that The Sorrow Stone is a gripping and exciting novel; and ArtsHub Australia where Susan Francis found that…

…this sense of detachment worked for me, it emphasised that the story was ancient and foreign, the events strange and fabulous. By the final page of Gíslason’s The Sorrow Stone one could definitely sense what life was like before ideas of equality and emancipation, before food was easy to access, when the law was something violent and worked out between the menfolk.

Authors: Kári Gíslason
Title: The Sorrow Stone
Cover design: Christabella Designs
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press, 2022
ISBN: 9780702265525,, pbk., 226 pages including a family tree, a map, the author’s note and acknowledgements
Review copy courtesy of UQP.


Responses

  1. Mr Books struggled with this book from start to finish, and only read on in the hope they would all die in the end! Nothing that either of you have said now, makes me think that I would get anything out of reading this book.

    Like

    • I hear you. I think it’s worth reading the original sagas, like its worth reading the classics and Shakespeare and the Bible, so that I can recognise patterns and allusions. But rewritings of them… I’m not convinced either.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh, that is a shame. I would have picked this up so I thank you (and Mr B’s Books) for the info that will lead me to swerve it.

    Like

    • Ah no, don’t do that… you have reminded me that I have broken my own rule here: I like to add a more positive review if I’m not too keen on a book. So bear with me, I’ll find one, and please read it before you make up your mind.

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      • Oh no, it’s fine, and good. I trust your (and Brona’s/her family’s) opinions, I’m funny about people riffing off sagas anyway (could NOT deal with Jane Smiley’s Greenlanders, for example, if I’m going to read a big fat saga, I’ll read a proper saga) so I had enough info here to make my choice, however much other people might like it. But thank you for being so careful and nuanced.

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        • Well, it seems only fair to balance my opinion with someone else’s…

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