Independent People – Halldór Laxness

 Halldor Laxness won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955

Five words from the blurb: Iceland, epic, sheep, independence, masterpiece

I first heard about Independent People when David Mitchell, one of my favourite authors, recommended it. He seems to have a very good taste in books and so I now snap up anything that he highlights.

Independent People focuses on Bjartur, a sheep farmer living in an isolated part of Iceland. His beliefs are totally different from any other culture I have read about before and I found it fascinating to learn about them. Bjartur’s main aim in life is to achieve independence.

The man who lives on his own land is an independent man. He is his own master. If I can keep my sheep alive through the winter and can pay what has been stipulated from year to year – then I pay what has been stipulated; and I have kept my sheep alive. No, it is freedom that we are all after, Titla. He who pays his way is a king. He who keeps his sheep alive through the winter lives in a palace.

He wants to be able to survive without having to rely on anyone else and the lengths he goes to are a bit extreme. For example, he finds it rude to ask anyone for help, to the extent that in a life or death situation he offered to help someone with a mundane task until that person was grateful and asked if there was anything they could do for him.

This book is beautifully written and packed with quotable sentences and amazing descriptions.

“She peeped out from under the blanket, and there he was, still sitting on the edge of his bed, when all the others had gone to sleep, mending some implement or other. No one stirred any longer, the living-room fast asleep; he alone was awake, alone was chanting, sitting there in his shirt, thickset and high-shouldered, with strong arms and tangled hair. His eyebrows were shaggy, steep and beetling like the crags in the mountain, but on his thick throat there was a soft place under the roots of his beard. She watched him awhile without his knowing: the strongest man in the world and the greatest poet, knew the answer to everything, understood all ballads, was afraid of nothing and nobody, fought all of them on a distant strand, independent and free, one against all.”

I admit that there were several slow sections, but this is one of those books where all effort is rewarded. It was wonderful to be able to gain an insight into a culture so different from my own. I now have some appreciation for the harshness of life in the Icelandic countryside and am just a little bit more grateful for my centrally heated home.

Highly recommended.

The thoughts of other bloggers:

….brilliant in a depressing, downtrodden sort of way. BookNAround

His language is poetic, touching and authentic. Caribou’s Mom

It is not an easy read, but is well worth the effort. Musings

Have you read anything written by Halldor Laxness?

Which of his other books do you recommend?


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  1. I don’t believe I’ve ever read anything set in Iceland before – what a unique locale. I’ll definitely have to look this one up. The passages you selected highlighted that beauty of prose.

    1. Jackie says:

      Coffee and a Book Chick, I don’t think I’ve read an Icelandic book before either, but this certainly won’t be the last!

  2. Helen J Beal says:

    Ahhh I loved this book very much. I bought it when I visited Iceland years ago – what an amazing country – eerie and full of off kilter, instinctive energy.

    1. Jackie says:

      Helen, I really hope that I can visit Iceland some time soon. It is top of my list of places to visit as it looks so beautiful. I’m sure that this book would be even better if read in the country.

      1. Helen J Beal says:

        Oh you must soon! It’s amazing! I went one May – they only have a couple of hours of darkness that time of year. I went for a long weekend and did the classic ‘golden circle’ tour where you go to and swim in the thermal baths – the blue lagoon, the geysers, gullfloss (a waterfall so incredibly powerful you feel about the size of a bacteria) and a volcanic crater. I went to Rotarua in NZ recently and (sorry!) it had nothing on Iceland. They also have an incredible mythology tradition – little spooky creatures out in the countryside – worth looking up. When I went it was pre-recession and pretty expensive. They’ve really suffered I know so not sure what the costs look like now but have a fabulous time WHEN you go! Helen

        1. Jackie says:

          Helen, Hopefully I will. I have been seriously looking at booking a trip to Iceland this summer, but it is so expensive for the whole family to go. I either need to do some major saving or perhaps just go for a few days instead of the 2 weeks I’d like to do. Great to see such passion for it :-)

          New Zealand is also on my list, but is definitely too far for me to go with my young boys at the moment. Perhaps in 10 years time.

  3. I echo Coffee and a Book Chick’s sentiments, I love Icelandic culture and would enjoy reading a book in that setting!

    1. Jackie says:

      Donovan Richards, I hope that you enjoy it as much as I did. :-)

  4. stujallen says:

    Had this on tbr pile for ages may bump it up a bit yet to review a book from iceland on blog and a while since I have read one ,great review Jackie ,all the best stu

    1. Jackie says:

      Thanks Stu! Perhaps you could read another Laxness book and let me know if that is amazing too! :-)

  5. Bookatlas says:

    Picked this up last year (Also after hearing David Mitchell recommending it) but never got round to reading it. You’ve just convinced me dig it out. Now where on earth did I put it…

    1. Jackie says:

      Bookatlas, It is nice to know I’m not the only one picking up random recommendations from David Mitchell. Enjoy :-)

  6. I love Iceland (been there) and loved the book, but I agree it was a bit slow at times. I read it years and years ago, it’s time for a re-read. But when do I ever have time to re-read anything?

    Maybe, because you liked this book and because we have similar reading tastes, you should read The Greenlanders by Jane Smiley. It’s about a group of Icelanders around the year 1000 who set up house in Greenland and try to survive there (and surviving is the word!). It’s one of my favorite books ever but I think you have to be a bit of a nordic enthusiast to enjoy it.

    1. Jackie says:

      Judith, I haven’t heard of The Greenlanders, but it does sound like the sort of book I’d enjoy. I have a few Jane Smiley books on my shelf (unfortuantely not that one) and have been meaning to try her for a while. This sounds like the perfect introduction to her work.

      Don’t worry – I haven’t found (made) the time to reread anything yet either!

  7. JoAnn says:

    I read this years ago with an online book club and have kept the book for an eventual reread. There were definitely some slow sections, but overall an excellent book. Hope to visit Iceland one day…

    1. Jackie says:

      JoAnn, I’m sure Iceland is an amazing place to visit – I love all those geisers and bubbling mud pits. I need to save the pennies….

  8. Sandy says:

    Iceland definitely has a whole mystique about it, and that intrigue was ignited in me first when I read “Smilla’s Sense of Snow”. But even better that you come away with a greater knowledge of another way of life. This is one to tuck in my back pocket!

    1. Jackie says:

      Sandy, I think Smilla’s Feeling for Snow is set in Greenland, but that is a country I haven’t read a book from either. It would be interesting to know how similar their cultures are. I have watched the film, but not read the Smilla book. I should perhaps read some Hoeg one day.

      1. Jackie, please don’t read “Some Hoeg”, I think he’s awful! Except, and this is a big except, Smilla’s Feeling for Snow. That book is brilliant. His other books I found very disappointing.

        1. Jackie says:

          Judith, LOL! The problem is that I don’t normally like reading books after having seen the film. Perhaps I’ll leave him for a few years and pick up Smilla once I’ve forgetten it a bit more!

  9. Steph says:

    I am intrigued because initially this did not sound to me like the kind of book that I would pick for you, so I think it says a lot that you found it so rewarding. I admit that I am abashed and never having heard of this author before, despite his having won the Nobel Prize! He’s certainly on my radar now!

    1. Jackie says:

      Steph, I’m glad that I’ve added a new author to your radar :-) You are right that the description doesn’t sound like the sort of book I’d enjoy, but I think that just proves what a wonderful writer he is. There is also quite a pace to some of the book and so much to think about. I think you’d like it.

  10. Teresa says:

    I had never even heard of this, but Victoria at Eve’s Alexandria wrote a very good review a few days ago which got me interested, and now you’re reviewing it and liking it. On the list it goes!

    1. Jackie says:

      Teresa, Yes. I saw her review. It is weird how several bloggers randomly decide to read the same book at the same time, years after publication. I wonder if David Mitchell has been subliminally influencing everyone :-)

  11. Wendy says:

    So glad you appreciated this one, Jackie. I also found it fascinating to read about a country I knew little about (and the descriptions of the countryside are so beautifully done, aren’t they?). Thanks for the link to my review!

    1. Jackie says:

      Wendy, Amazing descriptions of the countryside – and the cold Brrrrr!!!

  12. Laura says:

    Oh my goodness, a link to my (old) blog! It feels like ages ago that I read this (and it sort of was).

    I was just hopping over here to say I knew you’d like this book. Great review, Jackie.

    1. Jackie says:

      Laura, Yes. it was strange to see you old blog – your new one is a big improvement :-)

  13. annie says:

    One of the things I feel really ashamed of where my reading is concerned is how little I read from other cultures. When I look down the list of Nobel winners, or even winners of the Commonwealth Prize , I’ve read almost none of them. I keep resoling to do something about this, but then picking up an ‘easier’ read. Thank you for pricking my conscience again.

    1. Jackie says:

      annie, I’m not doing too well with the Nobel winners, but the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize is one of my favourites, so I have read a lot of them. I highly recommend you giving them a try – most of the CWP books are very readable (unlike some of the Nobels ;-) )

  14. Annabel says:

    We read another of Laxness’ books for bookgroup a couple of years ago – Under the Glacier. I didn’t enjoy that book which was billed as being really funny – so I was expecting something totally different to what I got, and it didn’t click at all – It was like a unfunny comedy version of the ‘Wicker Man’ without the sex and violence, and a bit of a Frankenstein/ghost story thrown in for good measure. I would give him another go though ….

    1. Jackie says:

      Annabel, Oh no! I don’t normally enjoy comedy in books and not sure about the Frankenstein reference. You have intrigued me, but it doesn’t sound like the sort of book I’m going to love.

  15. I had a feeling that this would b a winner; glad you confirmed that Jackie — I do own a copy.

    1. Jackie says:

      Diane, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

  16. I really liked this one as well. Read it in February ’08 during an extremely cold winter. I knew NOTHING about Iceland before, and it was really enlightening.

    1. Jackie says:

      Michelle, I wish I had read it in snowy weather. Drizzle doesn’t have the same atmosphere :-(

  17. Beth F says:

    I read this years ago and I still remember it, so that in itself says something! I was worried that you would find it too slow, so I’m glad you stuck with it and like it.

    1. Jackie says:

      Beth, Yes, it was quite slow, but the amazing writing and the stark differences in culture pulled me through. I’m sure I’ll remember it for a long time too. :-)

  18. I love books that have a good sense of place and the people of that place. There’s a special allure in reading about rural life as well, especially when I am living now in a metropolitan area.

    Thanks for bringing this book to my attention!

    1. Jackie says:

      Christy, It takes a special writer to bring a place to life this well. This is the perfect andedote to city living :-)

  19. Alex says:

    A recommendation from David Mitchell would also go a long way with me. I’ve read another good review of this book, but forget where. I think I’ll save this one for an upcoming visit to Iceland :)

    1. Jackie says:

      Alex, I’m very envious of your trip to Iceland – especially if you are able to read this book while you are there. David Mitchell recommends doing exactly that and although I haven’t done it I am convinced it will be bookish perfection. Enjoy :-)

  20. Kathleen says:

    This review is exactly why I love your blog so much. I would most likely never have discovered this author (even with the Nobel prize) and book if you hadn’t called it to my attention.

    1. Jackie says:

      Kathleen, It is amazing how many of the Nobel laureates I haven’t heard of. I’m trying to change that slowly, but there are a lot of undiscovered wonders in that list :-)

  21. Monica says:

    The premise sounds like dullsville! But I really like the passages you quoted and what you had to say about it. I also have never read anything from Iceland so this would fill that gap nicely.

    1. Jackie says:

      Monica, I agree – it does sound very dull, but that just proves he is a fantastic writer. Anyone able to make sheep farming interesting deserves a prize ;-)


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