Thursday, May 23, 2013

Review: Independent People

Independent People, first published in Iceland in 1934, secured Halldór Laxness his Nobel Prize in 1955. It is the grim saga of Bjartur of Summerhouses and his family, early 20th Century "crofters" -- subsistence sheep farmers who live in a sod house with the sheep on the ground floor and the family huddled in the upper level. The semi-literate characters starve through the winter and spring until they can grow a few meager vegetables in the home field and sell their scrawny sheep in the fall.

The book is rich, although the plot is meager, following Bjartur from the acquisition of his farmstead through the loss of two wives and three children. Vivid scenes punctuate long passages describing geography, weather, and peasant conversations about sheep ailments and Icelandic politics. For example, in one scene, Bjatur clings to the furry antlers of a reindeer as the animal drags him across a half-frozen river. Meanwhile, his first wife -- about ready to give birth alone in the hut -- kills and butchers a ewe, salts down the meat, and then gorges herself on a pot of offal stew. The cognate, while false, is apt.

Dark humor is woven into the story but does little to lighten the somber mood. With the cadences and vocabulary of Icelandic epic poetry, Independent People reads like a cross between J. R. R. Tolkien and Thomas Hardy. Many readers praise the book's genius; others will find it a heavy slog.



If you would like your review of this book listed here, please leave a comment with a link and I will add it.


Independent People counts as one of my choices for the 2013 European Reading Challenge.  At just under 480 pages, it also counts as one of my Chunkster Challenge books.


  1. Loved your review! I read this one some time back and actually ended up really loving it - but I can see how other readers could find it a drag :) Here is my review:

  2. Hi Gilion,

    I have to admit that this book does sound more than a little bleak and depressing, but then Iceland is reported to be a bleak and depressing country (although I only have that hersay and not from personal experience) and possibly even more so in 1934 as World War Two was looming on the horizon.

    Just check out this alternative cover art on and you can see where I am coming from ...

    At over 500 pages, it is something of a chunkster read, so I don't really know that it is on the top of my list, but I am really intrigued to check it out at some time in the future.

    Thanks for a totally honest and well considered opinion and review.


  3. I didn't find it to be such a dark slog, but it's certainly not a funny book. It's more... passionate, I suppose. Full of big ideas and big feelings. I definitely understand the reference to Tolkien, there's a bit of that in here. But I think the reason many readers consider this to be a genius work of fiction is because ultimately, it's an incredibly unique and powerful novel. Even if it does sometimes stumble a bit into slog-territory, it was fascinating to read.


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