Kolkata's Victoria Memorial

Image: Ryan MacEachern/Penguin

Wind-whipped tundras, black sand beaches and giant, volcanic fissures bursting from the earth: Iceland is a landscape that doesn’t so much inspire as demand to be written about. Accordingly, the small Nordic island nation been punching above its weight by producing world-renowned musicians, artists and writers for centuries.

Whether you’re yearning to experience the fjords and mountains or sample the many delights of its beautiful capital Reykjavík – and in truth, Iceland is small enough to combine both in one trip – this reading list will give you a taste for its people, culture and landscapes until you get to board that plane.

The Darkness by Ragnar Jónasson (2018)

Iceland has one of the lowest crime rates in the world and, until an unusual spike in 2017, averaged less than one homicide per year. Which, in addition to making it a safe place to travel, presents a delicious challenge to any writer who decides to set a murder mystery in this part of the land of the midnight sun.

Ragnar Jonassón’s bestselling, critically acclaimed Hidden Iceland trilogy does just that. The story begins in Reykjavik with a body that washes up on a nearby shore that’s presumed to be a suicide until a stubborn inspector picks up the case. What unfurls from here across three books is a masterful example of modern crime writing, with Ian Rankin among Jonasson’s notable fans.

The author is a student of Agatha Christie, and it shows in his tight plot twists and deft characterisation. But it’s his evocation of Iceland itself that make these books stand out in a crowded field.

King Harald's Saga by Snorri Sturluson (1797)

Travel north out of Reykjavík and you’ll come to the historic village of Reykholt, which was an intellectual power centre of the Middle Ages and home to the poet and politician Snorri Sturluson, often described as Iceland’s most influential figure.

As well as a fascinating museum and research centre dedicated to Sturluson’s work recording Nordic mythology – and liaising on behalf of his nation with troublesome warrior kings – Reykholt is a writer’s retreat for those hoping to follow in Sturluson’s footsteps, which includes Edda, an account of Old Norse stories and traditions considered one of the most important piece of medieval literature in the world.

If that feels a little daunting, however, you might prefer another of Sturluson’s works, which happens to have an interesting link to English history. King Harald’s Saga charts the rise and fall of a man who waged war across Europe and Russia, and who died during a failed assault on England in 1066, just a fortnight before William the Conqueror showed up, marking the end of Scandinavian dominance in Europe. It’s a lively and readable account even today, and a great starting point for anyone wishing to delve into the literary history and traditions of Iceland. 

Fish Can Sing by Halldor Laxness (1957) 

“Compassion is the source of the highest poetry,” once wrote Iceland’s most esteemed novelist and 1955 Nobel Prize winner Halldor Laxness. It’s a sentiment that captures the power of his work, the best known of which is the towering epic Independent People, about a sheep farmer battling to make a living in the unforgiving Icelandic countryside

It’s a novel that saw him compared to Tolstoy, and rightly so. But if you’re looking for a something with a lighter touch we recommend Laxness’s 1957 coming-of-age novel Fish Can Sing, which tells the tale of an orphan called Álfgrímur who lives in a small community of eccentric outcasts. It’s wonderfully moving, often very funny, and deeply evocative of early 20th-century Iceland when the industrial revolution was dramatically changing traditional life on the island. 

Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland by Sarah Moss (2013)

Any good holiday involves spending at least an afternoon daydreaming about how your life could be different – read: infinitely better – if you simply didn’t go home. After a camping trip to Iceland as a student, Sarah Moss clung to the dream of relocating until, years later, she spotted an advert for a position at the University of Iceland.

Names for the Sea is a insightful and often very profound example of the expat memoir that sees the author and academic’s idealistic view of Iceland as a harmonious society upturned by the impact of the 2007 financial crash. Shortly after arriving to start her new life, the IMF intervenes to save Iceland from bankruptcy and Moss's salary, like many others, drops by a third. Political upheaval around the country naturally follows.

Despite the title, this is travel writing that engages directly with Icelandic society – its politics, customs and values – more than its dramatic landscapes, and is all the better for it. The book is also a wry and honest appraisal of middle-class Englishness, and what we learn when reality collides with fantasy.

The Museum of Whales You Will Never See by A. Kendra Greene (2020)

A point of understandable pride for Iceland is the fact it has 265 museums, which is a pretty staggering one for every 1,250 residents. It other words, far too many to squeeze into a long weekend of sightseeing. Instead of trying, you can enjoy this beautifully illustrated ode to the vast range of passions and obsessions that keeps the island unique collection culture going.

Kendra Greene is a writer and artist with a long and illustrious career in museums, making her the perfect guide to a world that speaks directly to Iceland’s gift for storytelling and its unique geological characteristics. Great title, too.

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