Fossil Island

Written by Barbara Sjoholm
Review by Steve Donoghue

“….a novel about love and independence in 19th century Denmark. Inspired by the relationship between the composer Carl Nielsen and the artist and ethnographer Emilie Demant Hatt”

Barbara Sjoholm sets her novels Fossil Island and its sequel The Former World in the Denmark of the 1880s, a very traditional society suddenly beginning to confront the growing changes of the modern world.

At the center of her story are two sisters: fourteen-year-old tomboy, Nik and her older, more studious sister Maj. The sisters’ lives are disrupted in 1887 when their aunt introduces the family to handsome young composer Carl Nielsen.

Eventually Nielsen and Nik form a tempestuous relationship, the dynamics of which are continued throughout the linked plots of both books. Sjoholm’s secondary characters are uniformly well drawn, and her small cast of main characters breathe with vitality and human complexity.

Her skill at rendering the society of a forgotten Denmark somehow makes that world feel both particular and universal. These are thoughtful, glitteringly intelligent novels, as shrewd about shifting social conditions as they are about the workings of the human heart. Either book can be read and enjoyed separately, and together they form a treat readers will re-read with pleasure.

Very strongly recommended.