A brilliant Scandinavian novel given life by a skillful translation

I passionately loved Ice, written by Ulla-Lena Lundberg and translated skilfully by Thomas Teal, although it has received some undeserved,

I passionately loved Ice, written by Ulla-Lena Lundberg and translated skilfully by Thomas Teal, although it has received some undeserved, I believe, criticism for being too ‘nice’ by other readers and reviewers.

I feel that is very harsh criticism as every novel or film from this part of the globe does not have to be labeled as ‘Scandi noir’.  The novel is very atmospheric and brooding at times, but there is also a sense of joy at the resilience and perseverance of the characters as they live out their lives against this beautiful, isolated and unforgiving backdrop. Thomas Teal, the translator, does a wonderful job of translating from the Finnish and the author herself was a winner of the prestigious Finlandia Prize for this outstanding novel.

IceSet in amongst the Orland Islands in the Baltic Sea there is a far-flung archipelago situated between Sweden and Finland – I had to do a Google search to find out where it was set. The time period is around the conclusion of the Second World War.  There is a sense of austerity and yet a strong faith that the future will be better. This close-knit community welcomes the new priest and his small family to this chilly but warmly hospitable island. There is a strong sense of place and belonging in this novel as the young Lutheran priest Petter Kummel and his practical wife Mona and their daughter Sanna step ashore and are ensconced into the draughty vestry and then coached into the lifestyle of the farmers and fishermen who live there on Church Isle. The novel relies a lot on beautifully descriptive passages describing the simple rhythms of the seasons. The warm summer, the milking and haymaking, the chillier autumn and the preserving and laying down of stores for the ice of winter. In fact, the reader is immersed into these peaceful bucolic rhythms and I almost wished I could milk a cow and lay my cheek against her warm flank, or rest with a cool drink after a day of bringing in the hay to store for winter.

Peter and Mona rapidly become part of the landscape and social fabric of the Island. He is bursting with faith for the souls of his congregation but is also friendly and approachable as he fully immerses himself into the life of his parish. Mona is no mealy-mouthed help mate but is fully involved in the life of her husband and child.  She is  a fully experienced farmer and keeps food on the table. And it is a very sociable table, always full of guests to be fed even after the food shortages of World War Two. But the young couple take on the role of pastoring with passion and commitment, quickly becoming a focal point of their spread out community who journey to church on speed boats in summer and on sleighs in winter. From Adele who runs the co-op, to Post Anton who brings the mail and supplies but is also a type of narrator who slides in occasionally to bring another  voice. Then there is the verger, the organist and the mysterious Russian Doctor Gallen who has her own secrets. The novel is written in the third person, yet we occasionally have a glimpse into the interior worlds of each of the characters. Here the hostile but beautiful island is like a character of its own and Petter is enchanted with it and embraces all of the nuances of change, taking to sledding on the thick winter ice to waking up in wonder to the sounds of the ice cracking and again to the spectacular northern lights. He has a closeness with his little girl Sanna and shares these experiences with her while her more practical mother Mona is focused on the day to day practical struggles of existence in a harsh but beautiful and isolated terrain, and of giving birth to another daughter Lillus and then coping with illness.

I was almost lulled into an otherworldly sense of bliss reading of the simple but daily lives of these seemingly simple people, when a shocking event happens which prompted me to gasp  ‘NO!’ out loud in the cafe where I was reading the book with a coffee. I was gobsmacked with disbelief. And then we are thrust back into a reality that is almost savage after the sweetness that lingered before. In fact, the sweetness now becomes bitter and the reader is reminded once again that life is precarious and that fairy tales do not really exist. They are only fairy tales. And we realise why the novel is called Ice.

This book is a stand alone excellent piece of reading. It takes us into a world which is deceptively simple and looks pretty and enticing on the surface, but underneath there is a savagery and grappling with the elements of nature which can be utilised for our needs but never mastered. There is a simple, nostalgic tone to the prose and the characters are likeable and believable. I loved it.

Ice, by Ulla-Lena Lundberg, translated by Thomas Teal, is available from Dymocks