A writer begins an extraordinary journey with their very first novel. The first one is the learning curve and marks the very first steps into a world of organized creativity and storytelling to the masses. Alda Sigmundsdóttir’s first novel, Unraveled, is a damn good start.
Unraveled is the story of Frida Lowe, previously Fríða Jóhannsdóttir, a woman in search of herself and for a place to call home.
After a somewhat unhappy childhood in the little city of Reykjavík, Frida escapes to the grand city of London to live out her dream but instead falls in love with a handsome and somewhat older British diplomat.
The author opens with an irresistible introduction of the main character Frida and her husband, the UK Ambassador to Iceland, Damien Lowe. A stunning couple with little left to say to one another.
Frida Jóhannsdóttir did not have the happiest of childhoods and was burdened with a strong sense of shame as a child. Her departure is an escape from a past from which she wants to cut loose, and to make a happier life for herself where she is but another stranger on the crowded streets of a big city where everybody is invisible.
The young woman so full of shame becomes a diplomat’s wife and after more than a decade away, she is back in Iceland, not as the insignificant Frida Jóhannsdóttir but the sophisticated and worldy Frida Lowe, a wife to the British Ambassador.
Now returned to her native Iceland as a woman of prestige, she is neither Icelandic nor British. Her surname is British and even her first name anglicized.
What came as a surprise to me was that in distinguishing between Frida Lowe and the Icelandic Frida Jóhannsdóttir, her first name continues to be written in the anglicized way, rather than the standardized Icelandic spelling that is ‘Fríða’ (meaning ‘beautiful’).
It seems oddly appropriate to have been asked to review Unraveled. Like the protagonist, I too am married to a man whose roots and background are distant to my own humble roots in Iceland.
One of the book’s primary themes is the topic of belonging. The sense of belonging to one place and also to another. Whether in Iceland or elsewhere, the semi-detached sense of belonging to one’s native culture is compromised by a new sense of belonging to your partner’s. Both experience a change in perception.
Alda’s international background—having spent many years abroad—shines and enables her to accurately portray the predicament of belonging and not belonging.
The author tells the story of Frida and how she rediscovers her Icelandic identity in a sequence of events that all spin from a dramatic discovery in the beginning of the novel.
The storyline is captivating and makes it hard to put the book down. The 214 page novel is easily read in one succession, and the author keeps the reader interested from the very first page through to the last.
The novel feels genuinely Icelandic and for the foreign readership, Alda also provides an insight into turbulent times in Iceland’s history. She portrays the atmosphere in the wake of the economic crisis in Iceland, and the deeply fractured national character following the collapse of the banking system in October 2008.
Alda—who was born in Iceland, raised in Canada and has lived in the U.K., Cyprus and Germany—is both critical and sympathetic to the faults and plights of Icelanders in 2008, and that’s what makes the background story as interesting as Frida’s personal meltdown and return to self.
The characterization of Frida is a bit of a diversion from the image so commonly depicted of Icelandic women as the self-assured and independent (and often professional) woman.
The passage Frida takes in her self-discovery is to the rural most corner of Iceland, the West Fjords where fjords, cliffs and steep mountain walls hold the local population in hostage during worst of times, and inspire greatness in the best of times.
Like the power of the sea, the natural wonder that encircles us throughout the year, both in relentless rage or gentle passive strides while drawing lines and curves in the sand.
For Frida, Icelandic nature is a source of empowerment, a return to a time when she was obliviously happy and felt loved.
Setting the story in 2008, creates a paradigm between the protagonist private meltdown and Iceland’s economic meltdown. Together with a spirit reinforced by Icelandic nature and the daunting disillusion as the era of ‘great’ banking comes to an end, Frida finds her purpose in life and maybe even a place to call home.
The novel is not without faults but few can be credited to the author. Explanations of Icelandic phenomena are quite detailed in one or two places and in my opinion, momentarily pulls the reader away from the story; I would have liked to see it explained in context with the story.
While reading the book, I came across a couple of typos but generally none too severe that it disrupted my reading.
All in all, Unraveled is a lovely summer read that also helps to shed some light on Icelandic society in the wake of the economic crisis.
Unraveled is published by Enska textasmiðjan and available in Icelandic bookstores and on amazon.com.