10 great books set in Iceland and Scandinavia
Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites has sparked a fascination with Iceland at Picador and has set us reminiscing about our favourite Icelandic and Scandinavian stories. Here are some of them — may this be the start of a new reading journey! (Oh, and when we say ten books, we mean eight books and two series…)
The book that got us hooked on this part of the world in the first place, Burial Rites is based on the true story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last person to be executed in Iceland. I’ve read it twice now and both times its integrity and poignancy had me weeping on the Tube. The landscape of Agnes’s final days seems a character in its own right — like the novel as a whole, Iceland is by turns isolating and enabling, tragic and majestic.
Who better than Hannah Kent to blow the trumpet of The Sagas?
‘Anyone who wishes to understand Iceland should read The Sagas — they give you an extraordinary insight into the way early Icelanders lived and the codes they honoured, and to this day you can travel the country and see where the events they describe took place. I read The Sagas not only to become further acquainted with a country I already loved and knew, but also because I understood that people in Agnes’s time were very familiar with the stories.’
This might be aimed at teaching teenagers about the world’s great philosophers, but Jostein Gaardner’s novel is as magical as it is informative. It’s wonderfully exciting, especially if you’re new to philosophy, and there’s an intriguing interplay between what Sophie learns and what happens to her in real life…
This novel has one of my favourite titles ever, and Pettersen’s style is distinctive and refreshing. Families and friends break apart and memories are buried deep, but a chance meeting between the main character, Trond, and someone from that fateful summer of 1948 force those memories back into consciousness.
I was privileged to work at the then independent Harvill Press when Christopher Maclehose discovered the novels of Henning Mankell. The Swedish series featuring Inspector Kurt Wallander is addictive; they’re brilliant detective novels but also astonishing descriptions of a society with evil often at its core. Henning Mankell is a truly inspiring writer and a remarkable man — I still remember hearing him describe with passion and clarity why he believes Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky to be the greatest crime writers — and the morose, heavy-drinking Wallander is his finest creation.
A brilliantly original series of novels, perhaps the first Scandinavian crime books to reach a wide international readership. Start with Roseanna, and follow it with the other nine novels written in a ten year burst of creative intensity by the Swedish husband and wife team. It’s intelligent and compelling crime writing by two journalists with a radical political agenda that informs but never overpowers these brilliantly conceived detective novels.
I would also recommend the great Halldór Laxness, who won The Nobel Prize in Literature in 1955 ‘for his vivid epic power which has renewed the great narrative art of Iceland’. Start with his 1946 novel Independent People, which follows sheep farmer Bjartus who is determined to gain financial independence — but at what price?
This novel is absolutely brilliant! It’s beautifully written and so chilling. In its Scandinavian setting, Emma Chapman has written a geography that seems to mirror Marta’s entrapment in her marriage, and the ambiguity of the setting — we never work out exactly which country Marta is in — works brilliantly to frame and reflect the blurred edges of Marta’s understanding of events.
Spend some time in a perpetual winter with a sardonic and misanthropic heroine; throw in some murder, a suspenseful plot and a meditation on the human condition. A hugely enjoyable Scandi crime novel.
I loved The Killing when it was on TV and was excited to hear it was being adapted into a novel. I was even more excited to discover the novel was every bit as good as the TV show — stunningly atmospheric and tense.
Have you got any Icelandic or Scandinavian recommendations or is there another country you’d like us to feature next? We’d love to hear from you.
Originally published at www.picador.com.