When the days are short, the nights are dark and winter truly sets in, there’s nothing better than curling up with a good book. Particularly when that book is one of the 10 best books set in Iceland and Greenland. After all, if there is any place that knows about winter, it’s here. So if you’re looking for a dark comedy, a chilling crime thriller or perhaps some historical fiction to warm your winter nights with, you’ve come to the right place! Let’s get started.
Iceland has made a name for itself as somewhat of a literary hub in recent years. The country produces more books per person than any other country in the world! That makes for a thriving literary scene and some truly fantastic fiction. In this list we will cover the most ancient of Ielandic texts, as well as the books that make up the thriving, modern literary scene. So put on your woolly hat. It’s time to delve into the far north and discover the best books set in Iceland and Greenland.
EGILS SAGA by someone back in the c.1200s
The oldest book featured on this list of best books set in Iceland and Greenland is Egil’s Saga. This story describes the long and brutal life of tenth-century warrior-poet and farmer Egil Skallagrimsson: a morally ambiguous character who was at once the composer of intricately beautiful poetry, yet capable of staggering brutality.
The saga recounts Egil’s progression from youthful savagery to mature wisdom as he struggles to avenge his father’s exile from Norway, defend his honour against the Norwegian King Erik Bloodaxe, and fight for the English King Athelstan in his battles against Scotland. Exploring issues as diverse as the question of loyalty, the power of poetry, and the relationship between two brothers who love the same woman, Egil’s Saga is a fascinating depiction of a deeply human character
Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
This book is one that has stayed with me long after I finished the last page. In fact, it was the inspiration for this whole post! Given a death sentence for her part in a brutal murder Agnes is sent to wait out her final months on the farm of a district officer and his family. Horrified to have a convicted murderer in their midst, the family avoid contact with Agnes.
Only Toti, the young assistant priest appointed Agnes’s spiritual guardian, tries to understand her. As the year progresses and the hardships of rural life force the household to work side by side, Agnes’s story begins to emerge and with it the family’s terrible realization that all is not as they had assumed. Based on a true story from 1825, this book delves deep into what the concepts of guilty and innocent are. Set amidst the claustrophobia of an Icelandic winter this book delves right into what it is to be human.
Last Rituals by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir
Picture the scene. A young man is found brutally murdered with his eyes gouged out. He studied Icelandic history in Reykjavik. He also came from a wealthy German family who do not share the police’s belief that his drug dealer murdered him. Attorney Thora Gudmundsdottir is commissioned by his mother to find out the truth. With the help – and hindrance – of boorish ex-policeman Matthew Reich. Their investigations into his research take them deep into a grisly world of torture and witchcraft both past and present, as they draw ever closer to a killer gripped by a dangerous obsession
I don’t know about you, but when I think of the best books set in Iceland, Scandi Noir springs to mind. And Yrsa Sigurðardóttir is the Queen of Icelandic crime. In Last Rituals, she introduces Thora Gudmundsdottir, an attorney obsessed with finding the truth. The best thing about this book? It’s the first in a series, so when you get addicted you can jump right into the next one!
Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Hoeg
One snowy day in Copenhagen, six-year-old Isaiah falls to his death from a city rooftop.The police pronounce it an accident. But Isaiah’s neighbour, Smilla, an expert in the ways of snow and ice, suspects murder. She embarks on a dangerous quest to find the truth, following a path of clues as clear to her as footsteps in the snow. 21 years after its first UK publication, this books still feels fresh and full of suspense. The perfect Scandinavian crime novel!
Before I read this book I had no idea about Danish Colonialism, or of its impact on the population of Greenland. This is why it earned a place on the best books set in Iceland and Greenland. Smilla is caught between two worlds, her father is Danish and her Mother is Greenlandic. She feels stifled and trapped in Denmark and longs for the wide, snowy landscapes of Greenland.
Butterflies in November by Auður Ada Ólafsdóttir
It’s been a tough day for the protagonist of Butterflies in November. She’s been dumped. Twice. She’s accidentally killed a goose. And now she’s suddenly responsible for her best friend’s deaf-mute son. But when a shared lottery ticket turns the oddly matched pair into the richest people in Iceland, she and the boy find themselves on a road trip across the country. With cucumber hotels, dead sheep, and any number of her exes on their tail, Butterflies in November is a blackly comic and uniquely moving tale of motherhood, friendship and the power of words.
Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir is one of my favourite Icelandic authors. She has a gift for creating characters that keep you hooked from the first page. In this book, she also takes the reader on a road trip across the wild landscape of Iceland. So, if you haven’t visited this stunning country before starting, you’ll certainly want to after you finish.
Frost on My Moustache by Tim Moore
Up next on this list of the best books set in Iceland and Greenland is something a little different. Inspired by the swashbuckling travelogues of Victorian diplomat Lord Dufferin, frail surburbanite Tim Moore sets out to prove his worth to his sceptical Nordic in-laws by retracing Dufferin’s epic voyage to Iceland and Spitzbergen. But whereas Dufferin battled with icebergs, polar bears and the deep potations of hospitable Norsemen; Moore struggles against seasickness, vertigo and over-priced groceries.
As his bid to emulate fearless pluck in the face of adversity crumbles before haughty Icelandic skippers, a convoy of Norwegian Vikings and Spitzbergen’s Soviet ghost towns, he finds himself questioning what exactly drives a person to undertake such a journey. A hilarious, modern travelogue.
Independent People by Halldor Laxness
First published in 1946, this epic novel is set in rural Iceland in the early twentieth century. Bjartus is a sheep farmer determined to eke a living from a blighted patch of land. Nothing, not merciless weather, nor his family will come between him and his goal of financial independence. Only Asta Solillja, the child he brings up as his daughter, can pierce his stubborn heart. As she grows up, keen to make her own way in the world, Bjartus’ obstinacy threatens to estrange them forever.
Independent People is one of the underrated 20th Century Classics. Halldor Laxness sensitively depicts the historical farming culture of Iceland, creating a book that is destined to stay with you forever. If that’s not enough to convince you, he won the Nobel Prize in 1955 for literature for this novel which definitely qualifies it as one of the best books set in Iceland. So do yourself a favour and read it as soon as possible.
Arctic Chill by Arnaldur Indriðason
A young boy is found dead, frozen to the ground in a pool of his own blood. The boy’s Thai half-brother is missing; is he implicated, or simply afraid for his own life? Fears increase that the murder could have been racially motivated. And the police receive reports that a suspected paedophile has been spotted in the area. Detective Erlendur’s investigation soon unearths the tension simmering beneath the surface of Iceland’s outwardly liberal, multi-cultural society while the murder forces Erlendur to confront the tragedy in his own past.
This book earns its place on the best books set in Iceland and Greenland thanks to its focus on a different topic. It can be easy to forget that Iceland is not simply full of tall, blonde Vikings. Throughout this novel, Indridason tackles the consequences of multi-culturalism in Iceland and its effects on Icelandic psyche.
The Tricking of Freya by Christina Sunley
The penultimate book on this list of 10 best novels set in Iceland and Greenland is The Tricking of Freya by Christina Sunley. If you love a good psychological drama, then this is the book for you. Every summer Freya Morris visits her relatives in Gimli, a tiny village in Canada settled by Icelandic immigrants. But then her aunt Birdie tricks Freya into a terrifying scandal. And Freya turns her back on everything Icelandic and anything that reminds her of the past. She is living an anonymous, bleak existence in Manhattan when she finally returns to Gimli for the first time in two decades – and stumbles upon a long-concealed family secret.
As Freya becomes increasingly obsessed with unravelling her family’s tangled story, she finds herself delving into the very memories she has worked so hard to forget. When the clues dry up in Gimli, Freya journeys to Iceland itself. On this rugged island of vast lava fields and immense glaciers, Freya’s quest comes to its unsettling conclusion.
Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland by Sarah Moss
We’re rounding up this list of best books set in Iceland and Greenland with something a little different. At the height of the financial crisis in 2009, Sarah Moss moved to Iceland. From a makeshift home among the half-finished skyscrapers of Reykjavik, Moss travels to hillsides of boiling mud and volcanic craters. She visits the remote farms and fishing villages of the far north. She watches the northern lights and the comings and goings of migratory birds. And as the weeks and months go by, she and her family find new ways to live.
This book is perfect for readers who love to imagine what it is like to live in new and unfamiliar places. Sarah Moss has the ability to show readers the intensity of the country, as well as the frustration and sometimes impenetrability of the Icelandic. Most travelogues deal with a unique moment in time, when the author happens to be in the country. But Names for the Sea by Sarah Moss is about building a life, becoming part of a community and ultimately learning to love the wild unpredictability of the country.
That rounds up the 10 best books set in Iceland and Greenland
I don’t know about you, but these two countries fascinate me. As do the people who have inhabited them since ancient times. When it comes to reading about places that I can’t wait to visit, Iceland and Greenland a pretty much at the top of the list every time! Do you have any books you’d add to this list? I’d love to hear them.