Gunnar, a reclusive alcoholic blacksmith, reluctantly offers shelter to the stranger, Sigurd, who has injured his ankle on his way to a destination he refuses to divulge. In return for Gunnar’s spartan hospitality and his promise not to tell anybody Sigurd is there, Gunnar’s visitor tells a several-nights'–running story about an Icelander who emigrates to America, snatches up an American bride, and brings her back to Iceland. Gunnar’s promise to keep Sigurd a secret becomes increasingly difficult as women from the nearby village descend on Gunnar, determined to change him from a bachelor and a heathen into an upstanding (marriageable) citizen. Every time somebody drops in, Sigurd hides…but why?
Larssen’s clean, clear descriptions pull Iceland’s climate close as a damp blanket. When Juana, the American bride, arrives at her sweetheart’s village she notes, “The lack of trees was disconcerting. Surely there must be a forest somewhere nearby, she thought, as she climbed to the top of the mossy hill to better see her surroundings. Even the hill itself was strange. The soil was brick-red, then yellow, even pink. The few purple flowers that sprang up between the rocks were new to her…Both the ocean and the sky spread endlessly in front of her. To her left, the weather was clearing, and the water reflected the blue sky; to her right, clouds were gathering and the ocean looked cold and unfriendly…there was no church, no fields, not even fences!...The frosty wind whipped her mercilessly, and she had to hold on to her dress. Was this really it?” When Juana sees the Northern Lights, however, she gains an appreciation for her new home: “…her mouth opened in shock. Something that resembled green fire danced in the sky. The colors moved faster, then slower. They disappeared, then reappeared, regrouping stronger, covering the stars…. ‘Is this magic?’ she whispered. ‘Is it mountains changing shape? Is the sky burning?’….It was at that moment that the realization struck her, raising goosebumps on her skin: she had been living her adventure without even noticing. She was surrounded by magic, a prize more valuable than any jewel, more astounding than any story she had read before.”
Storytellers has a nice balance of description and conversation along with deft touches that delineate character as clearly as a die-cut stamp. Detail and humor give the story sparkle, while the machinations of the village women give the reader an urge to rescue Gunnar.
Also gripping is Larssen’s personification of depression, “the darkness” that plagues Gunnar and partly explains his need to self-medicate with moonshine. “Gunnar stared at the boiling pot, trying to gather enough strength to finish Sigurd’s meal. Sometimes splitting impossible tasks into smaller ones helped. Stand up. Pull the pot off the fire. Burn your fingers. Swear. Drain the potatoes. Mash them…no, too much, too fast. Reach for the masher. Move it up and down. Make a plate. Walk towards the room…Listen to the clock mercilessly bringing his death closer with each tick and tock.” Later: “He had no feelings, no hope, no choice. The darkness stood next to Gunnar, with her hand extended. He knew this would be their final encounter, the one that would never end. It felt as if the darkness was another person next to him, and he slowly turned his head to see…But there was nothing out of the ordinary. Perhaps the air was even more stale, the sky and grass greyer. He looked at Hallgrimur’s sheep without much interest. Little dots in the distance, some of them white, some brown. Unimportant and inconsequential. Like you, the darkness remarked.”
Two things detract a smidge from this page-turner; the first is an elf that appears for no apparent reason and could be dismissed as an hallucination—except Gunnar’s dog sees it too. But then the elf disappears without a why or a wherefore (more on him later). The other minor distraction is occasional 21st century diction bubbling up (“gross her out,” “too weird,” “blown away,” “do their thing”).
Nevertheless, this delightful pressure cooker offers its small-town characters an assortment of escapes: adultery, attempted murder, plots, witches, arson, blackmail, and fratricide.
In addition, Larssen crafts dead-on observations of human nature. When Gunnar briefly escapes small-town intrigue for a day of shopping in the big city, he notes, “Perhaps Reykjavik wasn’t so bad after all? It felt good to be a stranger, surrounded by other strangers, none of whom inquired about his religious views, tried to marry him, or asked questions about his money.” Another character pre-plans every detail of every encounter to ensure he will make the right impression: “…he would show up unannounced, blinking in the spring’s sunshine, overwhelmed by the beauty of everything. His hand would go up to cover his mouth at the sight of the church and dwelling, even if it was nothing but a painted shed. His passion and modesty would be noticed and praised….”
And there is a generous sprinkling of humor. Gunnar remarks at one point, “I just don’t like time. It’s bad for you.” And, later, “At least right now it was neither raining nor snowing outside, which Gunnar could tell by the fact that it wasn’t raining or snowing inside either.”
Author Bjorn Larssen was born in Poland, lives in the Netherlands, and is stone-cold in love with Iceland. He has a MS in Mathematics, has worked as a graphic designer and a blacksmith, and claims to have met an elf (which may explain why an elf appears in this book: perhaps Larssen owed him a boon?).
Larssen’s Storytellers takes you to an island in the North Atlantic a hundred years ago and sets you down in a village that may be surprisingly similar to your own home town. Recommended.