NY: Knopf, 1977.
Holland has written more than thirty novels in the past forty-plus years, and while all of them have been (to my mind) at least above average, her style has changed somewhat over time. This one is from her “early period,” which means short declarative sentences, a straightforward and unadorned narrative style, and a tendency to under-explain, to let the reader draw his own conclusions as to the characters’ motivations and inner mental workings.
I think I could pick up a loose page from any of these early books, read it, and know immediately that it was her work, just from the words she chooses and the way she threads them together. The setting this time is the late 11th century, beginning in Iceland. Bjarni is a young man in what we would today call an abusive and dysfunctional family — though, to judge by the sagas of the time, the sort of interrelationships he has to deal with were not uncommon there and then. He’s the eldest, with three younger half-brothers and a step-brother, the son of Hiyke, his father’s much younger third wife. In fact, she’s only a couple of years older than Bjarni himself, and he definitely has the hots for her. Except that she’s a practicing Christian and neither Bjarni nor his father, Hoskuld, have abandoned the old beliefs (even though everyone in Iceland now is, by law, an official Christian), which complicates everything. Hoskuld farms and fishes and when Bjarni finally decides he’s had enough, he decides to steal his father’s fishing boat and run off to the Hebrides in search of adventure, and he talks his brothers into going along. Which isn’t difficult, as they all hate the old man as much as he does. Only, when they get there, nothing is as they expected. When they decide to press on to another location, Bjarni’s brother, Ulf, who can’t keep his breeches buttoned, insists on kidnapping one of their bloody-minded host’s daughters — and then Bjarni gets caught and his brothers flee back home with the boat and the girl. From there, Bjarni finds his way to England and further adventures, including meeting the king, William Rufus, and becoming involved with a delinquent (and pregnant) adolescent Saxon girl who attaches herself to him. Eventually, he will make his way home again to Iceland, where things will mostly sort themselves out, one way or another, but where there are no happy endings. This is not what many readers would consider an “exciting” book, being rather dark and dour and anti-romantic, and even Bjarni is not always the sort of protagonist one can like. Nor is it even an especially lengthy novel, at just under two hundred pages, though it feels like the right length for the story it tells. But it’s a satisfying and very convincing read for all that.