The Ice Lands by Steinar Bragi
Set against Iceland’s volcanic hinterlands, four thirty-somethings from Reykjavik – the reckless hedonist Egill; the recovering alcoholic Hrafin; and their partners Anna and Vigdis – embark on an ambitious camping trip, their jeep packed with supplies.
Victims of the financial crisis, the purpose of the trip is to heal both professional and personal wounds, but the desolate landscape forces the group to reflect on the shattered lives they’ve left behind in the city. As their jeep hurtles through the barren land, an impenetrable fog descends, causing them to suddenly crash into a rural farmhouse.
Seeking refuge from the storm, the group discover that the isolated dwelling is inhabited by a mysterious elderly couple who inexplicably barricade themselves inside every night. As past tensions within the group rise to the surface, the merciless weather blocks every attempt at escape, forcing them to ask difficult questions: who has been butchering animals near the house? What happened to the abandoned village nearby where bones lie strewn across the ground? And most importantly, will they ever return home?
Well, this is most definitely a first for me, time for some psychological Icelandic horror. The Ice Lands follows four friends travelling across the country. They are trying to escape the daily grind of the rat race and reconnect with one another. At one point they take a wrong turn and before they know it they are hopelessly lost. From that moment on things go from bad to worse.
As the narrative unfolds, there is a slow growing sense of unease that starts to develop. There is something out there in the empty landscape. This malevolent presence appears to be watching the group. It wants Egil, Hrafin, Anna and Vigdis, and they are going to have to go through Hell if they have any chance of surviving.
The setting is one of the things I liked most about this story. Steinar Bragi does an excellent job of capturing the desolate isolation of rural Iceland. I’d imagine the seemingly endless volcanic rocks would feel disconcerting to people who are used to living in a city. The group attempt to retrace their steps, but lose all sense of direction. They are unable to rely on mobile phones or GPS. Even the sat-nav has failed so they have no idea how to get back on the road to civilisation.
In hindsight I don’t think The Ice Lands was quite what I was expecting. It is far more introspective and thoughtful. The author spends a lot of time detailing his four main characters, picking apart their lives and how they all intertwine. Every facet of their innermost thoughts and feeling are laid bare. They are a flawed bunch and there is probably just as much horror going on in their day to day lives as there is during camping trip. Bragi also uses each of his characters to explore the current shape of Icelandic society and the problems that the country faces.
I expect that this novel will split reader opinion down the middle. If I’m entirely honest I’m still not sure how I felt about it. I enjoyed the intense psychodrama of the character’s lives, but I think there probably could have been more explanation when it came to revealing exactly what was going on. There are a handful of horrific moments, which are suitably unpleasant, I just wish there had been a few more. Perhaps I’m just too jaded? I found the ending of the novel unusual. This is probably why I’m still not sure how I feel about the book as a whole. I was looking for more of a resolution to events and it didn’t quite get there. That said, I do think this book is worth a read. The characterisation is extremely good and the interactions between each of the small group’s individuals are well observed.
The Ice Lands is published by Pan Macmillan and is available now.