The Glass Woman

Written by Caroline Lea
Review by Bethany Latham

Rósa Magnusdottir’s mother is ill, hungry and coughing away in the chill and mud of their croft in a late 17th-century Icelandic village. Jón Eiríksson seems to offer the only solution: as a wealthy bonði (chieftain) from a distant village, he can provide for Rósa’s mother. Rósa marries this complete stranger, despite the fact that her heart is entangled elsewhere and there are disturbing rumors about the mysterious death of Jón’s first wife. Rósa is escorted on the days-long journey to her new home by Pétur, her husband’s apprentice, who seems to be feared as one of the huldufólk (“hidden people” – elves) by those they encounter. Jón is also feared, by the local populace as well as by Rósa – he is changeable, brooding and severe, with strict expectations of obedience and total submission from his new wife. He isolates her from the villagers, denying her companionship, not wishing her to speak with the local women. There is a locked loft in Jón’s croft where Rósa is forbidden to go, from which strange noises emanate. She feels watched, hears whispers and worries that there is a malevolent force… or perhaps she is losing her mind.

This is an interesting version of a very familiar Gothic plotline: snow-buried crofts in an isolated Icelandic village offer every bit as much claustrophobia and unsettling ambiance as a decaying English estate. Clash between the old ways (runic symbols and huldufólk) and Christianity (those suspected of pagan beliefs risk being burned) and mistrust of outsiders add even more to the sense of foreboding. Lea excels at creating and exploiting that atmosphere and tension; pages will turn quickly while devouring this suspenseful read. The resolution is less satisfying, but in this case, getting there is more than half the fun.