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daily review, thu., may 28

The North American Icelandic community is obsessed with genealogy, as, of course is the original Icelandic community. It's a passion that goes back to medieval times.

Iceland had an elaborate set of laws, collected in a tome called Grágás. These laws provided set penalties for almost every kind of wrongdoing, but the country had no executive branch, so if you were awarded a judgment you had to enforce it yourself. Often the penalty was death to the offender, making it important to know who your relatives were.

  • The Tricking of Freya, by Christina Sunley, St. Martin's, 342 pages, $28.95

Christina Sunley's debut novel, The Tricking of Freya, illustrates that passion for finding relatives - "Our People," as she calls them. The heroine, Freya, is a young woman working in New York and who begins to confront the question of her origins. She journeys to Gimli, Manitoba, site of the original Icelandic settlement in North America, and meets her closest relatives. They include Birdie, her strangely disturbed aunt, and Sigga, her grandmother. She also encounters her farmer-poet grandfather, though he has been dead for decades. In the Icelandic imagination, death is no deterrent to confrontation. There are so few Icelanders that the dead are kept alive in the culture.

The novel begins in the voice of a child, amazed by all things she encounters: the food, the language and, most of all, the stories. Aunt Birdie is appalled that Freya cannot speak Icelandic and does not know the great literary tradition of her forebears. Anyone who reads the novel will come away knowing more than they might care to about Iceland and its culture, in particular the odd historical construct of New Iceland, a preserve granted to the Icelanders in Manitoba in 1875 that allowed them their own language, government and laws.

Sunley describes the traditional food, ponnokokurs and vinarterta and much more, and how the cooking is done. She sprinkles the novel with Icelandic words, and at one point provides a very thorough description of the various possible endings for the Icelandic word for horse. She lists about 14. Freya enters wholeheartedly into the culture, attending the Islendingadagurinn festival at which her grandmother had once presided as Fjallkona. She learns to call people elskan (darling). Again and again, the old Icelandic mythology enters the work as leitmotif.

In fact, in places the book reads more like a treatise in sociology than a novel, though the actual story is quite powerful. When Freya is taken to Iceland as a child, she encounters almost every well-known landmark, building, landscape and cliché about the place. Everything is elaborately explained and described. Though I don't mean to denigrate the novel, it reads like an excellent travelogue. And Sunley has a fine eye for detail and a flair for poetic description that makes the work compelling.

The Icelanders, as Sunley describes them, are obsessed with language. They revel in the old kennings, substitute words such as "striker" or "life-quencher" for "sword" and "word-meadow" for "tongue." "Word-meadow" becomes Freya's special description of her own obsession with language and poetry. Characters spout poems and songs, mostly drawn from the Old Icelandic Eddas. Not only is Freya's grandfather a famous poet, but she is a direct descendent of Snorri Sturluson, the great 12th-century scholar who preserved the ancient heritage of Icelandic poetry in his Prose Edda.

The novel veers between a bubbling optimism and a bleak despair. After her early encounters with the family, Freya returns to the United States and spends years working in an underground photography studio. The studio is actually below ground level, and functions as her own private hell. Freya gradually comes to the conclusion that there is a dreadful family secret that she must uncover. The novel is written as a series of letters to an imagined or missing cousin. It becomes increasingly dark as Freya goes to Iceland in search for a dreadful truth. Her own psychological state begins to crumble; she is diagnosed as manic-depressive and spends some time in a psychiatric hospital. The trip to Iceland does not completely solve the problem of the dreadful secret, but it does solves part of it and sends her back to Gimli for the rest of the solution.

The Tricking of Freya is rich in description and it explores the traditions and idiosyncrasies of the Icelandic ethnic tradition in an enthusiastic and loving way. Sunley obviously is as obsessed with her heritage as her character and equally proud of it. The work is bright and lively and a very good read.

Gimli native David Arnason's many books, mostly fiction and poetry, include The New Icelanders: A North American Community.