The bewitching landscape of Iceland is the setting for Christine Sunley’s impressive debut, The Tricking of Freya. The novel is written in the form of a letter from Freya to the cousin she's never met, the daughter of her Aunt Birdie who lives in Gimli – Icelandic for heaven – a village in Canada settled by Icelandic immigrants who fled after a volcanic eruption destroyed their farmlands. Some of the immigrants settled in, quickly adopting the new culture and reinventing themselves as Canadians. Others are like Birdie, who tries to keep her heritage alive by speaking the language and studying the history.
Freya is enthralled by Birdie, whom she meets for the first time at the age of seven during a summer vacation to Gimli. Birdie, a poet, enchants the girl with bedtime tales of sagas and ghost stories. But Freya's favorite tales are the ones of the grandfather she has never met, the poet Olafur. To Freya, Birdie is amazing:
"I believed myself to be Birdie's one true ally in the world, and for that loyalty I was gifted her affection, the heightened magic that was life in her presence." However, her dear aunt is temperamental and prone to mood swings. She makes it difficult for Freya and her mother, Anna, to leave Gimli to return home to Connecticut each summer, sometimes threatening to kill herself. Birdie's dramatics are often taken as ways to grab the limelight - that is, until she tricks 13-year-old Freya into traveling with her to Iceland for what Birdie calls a "surprise vacation." For Freya, there is no choice: "If I doubted Birdie's word, I'd be doubting her. Doubting her sanity, her suitability, her fitness."
Birdie explains that they are going to Iceland to retrieve the letters her father, the poet Olafur, wrote to his brother in Iceland, but the trip goes awry and scars Freya for many years. She never sees her aunt again, gives up speaking Icelandic, and pushes any memories of Iceland and Gimli far back into the recesses of her mind.
The Tricking of Freya showcases Sunley’s love for the enchanting culture and complicated language of Iceland; the book is peppered with magical Icelandic words and epic tales. Sunley brings this foreign landscape to life with such mesmerizing descriptions of its scenery:
"Iceland is land alive, the earth split open, forming and re-forming before your eyes. Vast vistas of swirling black and neon green moss-drenched landscapes. Volcanoes in all directions and at every stage of existence: smoldering, dormant, extinct. Glaciers on the move, their hoary tongues licking the edges of meadows. Water falling everywhere, trickling spilling clamoring rumbling down rocky crevices and canyons. And spitting up boiling hot from holes in the ground." There is no better way to armchair travel.
I was initially wary of the Icelandic setting and epic family history, as I was not sure if I would be able to relate to the book. I wondered if the stark setting would take too much attention away from the plot and the characters. But Sunley has a firm hold of this story and steers it skillfully through the land of fire and ice. Her characters are dynamic, and Freya especially grows on you as Sunley admirably crafts her with an astute understanding of children.
The climax is perhaps a little predictable, but overall, this coming-of-age tale is quite a brilliant debut and a definite page-turner.