Yes, I am done reading Gunnar’s Daughter already. It wasn’t an overly long novel to begin with, but the amazing story made pages fly by even faster. It took me only about two days of commute to and from work and a little alone time before bed on the third night to wrap it all up. But I wish it never ended. The book made my heart ache and my head spin, and at times I just wanted to dance from room to room, singing praises in poor falsetto (but only because I’m a horrible singer). I wanted to re-enact the scene from Beauty and the Beast, where Belle flies across the bookshelf on a rolling ladder caught up in her gushing about a favorite book, but for the lack of such a ladder I just re-enacted Tom Cruise’s famous moment on Oprah.
Too much? Mayhaps, my friends, but the point is that I really loved the book. With all my heart. The narrative is not overly complex – to the point where fans of Undset’s other works noticed a drastic change in style of writing, – and is more reminiscent of old Scandinavian sagas. But there was so much passion in the dialogue and so many interwoven historical notes on medieval way of life, that the story truly came to life before my eyes.
To quickly give a summery of Gunnar’s Daughter, it is a tale of a beautiful girl who becomes a victim of rape and is forced to survive a life full of challenges and disappointments. When Vigdis is violated by a man she loves, she believes her life is marked forever by shame and dishonor. But it is not until she learns that she is with child that Vigdis seeks escape in suicide. Thankfully her resolution to jump into a river falls through, and she spends the next eighteen years harboring undying desire for revenge, all while re-building her life from scratch.
The subject matter of the book is pretty heavy, but it is never brooding or preachy. Personally, I never found myself hating Ljot, the man who offended Vigdis, because Undset made him look so human. Ljot followed his passions too far in his desire to possess the woman he loved, which led him to commit a despicable act of violence. Torn by remorse, he vowed to do all in his power to make it right for Vigdis, but being a strong and free-willing woman, she rejected and sent him away. As years passed, many men who became touched by her incredible character, offered to marry Vigdis, but to no avail. I love it that fortune presented Vigdis to be “saved” by a man several times, but she chose to make her own life and her own happiness. And indeed, she did very good for herself. I hate to use the word because it becomes some kind of label nowadays, but the story is incredibly “feminist” for something set in medieval Norway, where testosterone usually spills all over. Vikings? Nordic gods? Bears? Hello-o!
I am also pleasantly surprised by the way Undset describes Icelandic and Norwegian societies of the olden days. Her women are free to choose their husbands, and their fathers are kind and protective. There is a lot of violence, but it is mostly done in name of honor. The senseless violence that Ljot is guilty of during a scene in the beginning is frowned upon and causes repercussions. Both men and women foster parentless children like their own, even if they come from a rival, and love proves truly undying. Undset’s world might be a bit idealistic, but it is a guilty pleasure to read and escape to.
And the ending… My goodness, was it ever heartbreaking and powerful! This is the perfect finale to a story of these proportions. I know that my heart wanted a different kind of conclusion, but in my mind I knew that Undset made the perfect choice to really warp up her overall theme with a punch. This tension between pride and love culminates in a most dramatic sacrifice. Bam! and you close the book with a sense of awe and admiration. In all honesty, I cannot wait to get to Undset’s next books, which thankfully, are still plenty ahead.