22 February 2011

The Sea Road by Margaret Elphinstone

Thoughts and Reflections
This book was a new experience for me. I haven't read much lore or folk tales. This novel, I don't believe, is true lore (though based on a real character, Gudrid), but it is written in the style of a folk tale. The narrator is telling her story and the book reads as though the reader is hearing her tell her story. At times she tells her story in first person, at others in third.

At first I found the novel difficult to get into, mostly due to the writting style. I suppose I couldn't read it as fast as I wanted or normally would read. However, I soon became caught up in the story of the protagonist/narrator. Soon enough, the various images of Iceland, Greenland, the north Atlantic, and Canada were flickering in my mind. I enjoyed the balance between descriptive writing and history. Neither one drowned out the other, but were a nice compliment.

I enjoyed following Gudrid's story. She had a great willingness for adventure, first travelling to Greenland with her father, then to Vinland with her husband. Her life was hard, partially because of life at the time and her location, but also because of strings of misfortunes that chased her. The book discusses the ghosts of her past, how they affect her present circumstances, and how she overcame these ghosts. However, this discussion remains in the background. The overall sense of the novel is that you are simply hearing the story of someone. As such, there are no themes or motifs or other literary tools. The reader is simply hearing Gudrid tell her own story.

I enjoyed the ending. Due to some unexpected delays in Canada's mass transit, I was able to read the last half of the novel almost without interruption. I read the entire novel over about 3 days, keeping the beginning fresh in my mind even as I finished the last page. The very last pages of the novel provide the conclusion to an instance barely mentioned at the very beginning of the novel. These events didn't make much sense to me. However, conveniently, someone who read the novel previously had marked in the margin exactly which pages this later event referred to (pages 29 and 33, for those who are also confused).  With that reference, the conclusion concluded nicely, leaving me with some lingering thoughts on Gudrid and her life, but no deep or painful curiosity about her experiences. I will admit, to dreaming a few times about her ghosts, though!

And so, all in all, I enjoyed the book. I enjoyed the style, the bit of history, and the glimpse into Gudrid's life. I'd certainly recommend it.

Point of Interest
Gudrid was a real person! Here is a link to a Wikipedia article on her.

Brief Synopsis
The novel tells the story of Gudrid, the protagonist and narrator. Gudrid, as a old woman, is telling the story of the voyages of her youth to a priest in Rome. She, an Icelander around 1000AD, had a life of travel and adventure, trekking to Greenland, to Canada (Vinland -now believed to the L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland) with Leif Erikson, and elsewhere. This was also the time when Christianity came to Iceland. Conversion was at times personal and at other times political. Gudrid had converted, but was still versed in paganism and witchcraft. She believed her life to be guided by the fates. Periods of her life were plagued by death and misfortune, yet she lived a hard but happy life. 

About the Author
Margaret Elphinstone was born in Kent and studied at Queen's College at Durham University. Her research consisted of Scottish authors and literature of Scotland's offshore islands. She traveled extensively and worked in various locations before becoming a teacher at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow in 2003, a position from which she recently retired. She began publishing in the late 1980s. The Sea Road was published in 2000. She received awards and bursaries in order to research and writing the novel, which won the Scottish Arts Council Spring Book Award in 2001.

Things I Liked about this Book
1. Gudrid. She is an incredible character, strong and wise. Her willingness for adventure and ability to endure hardship blew me away.
2. The style of writing. Written as if the reader was being told a folk tale, the book read easily and enjoyably. It was a unique experience, in my opinion.
3. The ending. I'll leave it at that so as not to spoil things for you, but I enjoyed it.

1 comment:

Rico said...

Stumbled on blog searching "The Sea Road"...beautifully written review and great example of what can be done on a blog page to communicate. The writer might enjoy Jim Crace's early novels...esp "A Gift of Stones". Thanks for posting.