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Iceland's Stoic, Sardonic 'Independent People'

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Iceland's Stoic, Sardonic 'Independent People'

Iceland's Stoic, Sardonic 'Independent People'

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

Author Christina Sunley's recent book, "The Tricking of Freya," was inspired by her Icelandic family history. One critic described it as a bewitching tale of volcanic emotions, cultural inheritance, family sorrows, mental illness and life-altering discoveries.

Well, in our series, YOU MUST READ THIS, in which authors talk about books they love, Sunley describes another book set in Iceland written more than half a century ago.

Ms. CHRISTINA SUNLEY (Author, "The Tricking of Freya"): I'd like to introduce you to the most maddening person I've ever encountered in my life. He is querulous, contrary, hard-hearted and stubborn. I've known him 15 years and he never fails to infuriate me, yet I find myself drawn to him again and again. He goes by the name Bjartur of Summerhouses.

Please do not let the fact that he is fictitious, or Icelandic, or an impoverished sheep farmer from another century deter you from entering his world, a world brilliantly conjured in the pages of the novel "Independent People."

I first opened this book with a feeling of trepidation and a hefty dose of familial obligation. My mother had sent it to me in the mail, accompanied by a note that said, you must read this, and the phrase was underlined three times. It's written by Halldor Laxness. He is one of Our People.

And that is how I came to encounter the flinty, yet endearing character Bjartur of Summerhouses. He's a gritty, practical farmer who composes poetry as he strides through blizzards searching for lost sheep.

As the novel opens, Bjartur, who spent 18 bitter years as a servant on another man's farm, is surveying the first thing he has ever owned. It is a dark, dank, turf-roofed farmhouse on a glacial moor where the family members inhabit one common room upstairs, and the sheep, horse, cow and dog occupy the entire first floor.

No matter. This miserable hovel is Bjartur's palace. Bjartur's sole quest in life, and one of the novel's great themes, is to live as an independent man in debt to no one. Bjartur's wife, his children, his neighbors, all bear the brunt of his obsession for independence in a harsh climate where interdependence is the only means of survival.

If all of this seems too grim, keep reading. One of the great surprises of the novel is the author's deliciously sardonic humor and marvelous grasp of human foibles at all levels of society.

As a devout fan of "Independent People," I'm in excellent company. Annie Proulx calls it brilliant and one of her 10 favorite books of all time. Jane Smiley says she can't imagine any greater delight than coming to "Independent People" for the first time.

Yet, if you've never heard of this great masterpiece, you're not alone. A bestseller when it was first published in the U.S. in 1946, "Independent People" eventually contributed to Halldor Laxness winning the Nobel Prize for literature in 1955. Sadly, this marvelous book then remained out of print in English for over 50 years, possibly because of McCarthy era perceptions about Laxness' communist sympathies.

Happily, it has now been reissued in a beautiful paperback edition. And so, I find myself repeating to you the words of my late mother: You must read this. Perhaps the author, Halldor Laxness, will become one of your people, too.

SIEGEL: Christina Sunley is the author of "The Tricking of Freya." To read an excerpt of "Independent People" or for more You Must Read This essays, you can go to npr.org.

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