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I have recently tried to stop buying so many new books and to concentrate on books that have languished on my shelves for a while, for both financial and space reasons. One of the books that I had had on my shelves for several years was this fiction novel by Sigrid Undset, a behemoth at 1123 pages. I bought it when I was going through a literary stage (it won the Nobel Prize for literature in the 1920's) and it has stayed with me through several house moves as I always intended to read it at some point, but was put off by the size. This volume contains the three separate novels that Unset originally published- The Wreath, The Wife and The Cross (the first two are also known as 'The Bridal Wreath' and'The Mistress of Husaby') , which are all a much more manageable 4- 500 pages each on their own.
Kristen Lavransdatter is the daughter of Lavrans, a wealthy farmer in 14th Century Norway. The books introduce her in her early teens, track her through her eventful life and finish with her death. It's the story of a woman maturing, coming to terms with the choices she made about the passage her life will take, choices she may live to regret. We only see the periods of her life where there is upheaval or something of interest happens- these are widely spaced throughout her lifespan; the peaceful parts get less attention but build up a real picture of a woman's life in this time period. Undset's attention to detail is astonishing and I finished the book feeling as if I had learnt a great deal about the era without realising.
Through her husband Kristin gets caught up in Norwegian politics of the period and these are the parts that I found hardest to read. Firstly the names are all so different, not just the first names but the Norwegian custom of putting the father's name as the surname really threw me. Kristin is the daughter of Lavrans so she is Kristin Lavransdatter, but her son is Gaute Erlingsson. Multiply that by the cast of characters in the book, it can get really confusing (she has seven sons for a start!). The politics of Norway/Sweden and Denmark are so heavily involved in the plot of the story that you really cannot skip too much of the political stuff. It is pretty manageable but I did find this part of the book quite hard going.
The parts that appealed to me most were the social and historical parts of the story, the life of Kristin, the way she was expected to behave, dress and act. Undset has been praised for the accuracy of her historical writing, but its more than that, it's a thorough understanding of not just the Norwegian history and society of that period but the landscape too. She has captured it perfectly, its vivid and so beautifully described that its as if you are standing there on a mountainside picking berries or standing in the nunnery at Nonneseter. It is also a credit to the translator who has done a masterful job here of letting the words flow - I have read enough clunky, awkward translations to recognise that this is superb translating here.
Undset has a real talent for writing believable dialogue as well and I got completely sucked in to the story, it read more like a biography than an historical novel. The birth of Kristin's first son, the death of her father and the relationship with her husband are so beautifully written that I was frightened, worried, totally moved, ecstatic and furious by her story, it is incredibly rare that I get so emotionally involved in a story. This was despite the fact that I couldn't identify with Kristin, I didn't like her character and the way she chose to act, nor did I find a lesser character I liked. Undset writes characters that are human and then exposes their full character to us, all their little flaws and mistakes in a way I have not come across in anything else I have read. I just couldn't put the book down-it took me a week to read it due to its size and the subject matter but Undset's plotting and characters kept me picking it back up again. All of the minor characters are also beautifully observed, they complement the main story beautifully and their backgrounds and motivations are carefully filled in.
This period of time in Norway was a key period for the Christian church and as it totally permeates the life of the characters so it is a major feature of the book. Kristin is a good Norwegian Christian, her life runs around the church and all of its corollaries. In times of trouble she turns to it for help and succour, dreads its criticisms and tries her hardest to keep to its teachings. Despite an early departure from its strictures and behaviour as a teen, as she ages it becomes more important to her, she is truly a devout believer. Undset manages to get this across without it sounding like a moralising lecture, this is a very human story of one woman's faith.
The female perspective of this book is not overwhelming either, unlike chicklit or some of the modern historical novels I have read this feels real. It speaks of both a uniquely female experience and of the broad experience of all humanity, whatever time period you happen to be born in. Many of the reviews on Amazon are written by men who have read and enjoyed this book-this is not a 'girly' book.
This has to be one of the best, most engaging and real books that I have read so far. I find it very easy to see why it won a Nobel Prize for literature, but I find it very hard to understand why it is not more widely read. It is a masterpiece of fiction, but is also extremely easy to read even if some of the politics is a little dense in places. Despite the length of this book/these books, I can thoroughly recommend them and this is certainly not a book that will be making its way to the charity shop anytime soon-I'm holding on to this one.
There have been a lot of translations and editions of this book, some good, some bad. You can buy the books separately or combined together. My edition is the Penguin version with beautiful quality paper and pages that have been cut roughly down the side. The translator is the masterful Tiina Nunnally- ISBN - 0143039164. It is available for around £15 on Amazon marketplace.
There are cheaper editions available e.g. another complete volume of the 3 books was put out by Abacus and that is around £5 on Amazon marketplace. ISBN-0349106584