Sunday, February 28, 2016

Review: "The Greenlanders" by Jane Smiley

I was not expecting Jane Smiley’s The Greenlanders to be as complex as it was. Much like probably everyone my age who has read this book, I picked it up due to Jonathan Franzen’s glowing recommendation of it as one of the best novels of the last part of the 20th century. Judging from vague notions about what Smiley’s other novels are about, mainly her Pulitzer-Prize winning A Thousand Acres, this book, which is one of the most difficult books I will read all year, threw me for a loop. That isn’t to say it is a bad book or that I didn’t enjoy some parts of it, judging from my positive review of Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day at the start of the year. I just didn’t expect the book to be like this, and that expectation really influenced how I feel about this book. It is an interesting read, and a staggering feat of the imagination, but a lot of its brilliance went over my head, and I’m not ashamed to say it. Since most of the names in this book are brutal tongue twisters, I will use them sparingly, but this book, which takes place in Norse world of the 14th century, focuses on a family, Gunnarsson’s, and the small community in Greenland who thrive with very little influence from outside forces. The real treat is here is in the intricate pastoral setting Smiley conjures, which is filled with rituals, storytelling, some that go one for pages, and shocking acts of violence, the best and most unexpected happening within a few pages, as well as the drama that comes with the lives of people living in a tight-knit community, with a lot of the more interesting ones coming from the priests, who control much of their society, but are not as puritanical as you’d expect. This is a novel that swings for the fences, and whether it not it hits all the right marks, this book deserves praise and much more attention than it gets.

Rating: 4/5

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