Margaret Elphinstone - The Sea Road (2000)
100 Best Scottish Books of all Time
Historical novels are not easy to get right. If they are under-researched, they don't ring true. If they are over-researched, they groan under a burden of detail that the author was delighted to discover but which may have no place in the story, or was not made new by the imagination. Nor is it enough to get material facts correct; what Edmund White recently called 'brand name history'. Littering the text with period nuggets without going deeper into the culture and mores of an earlier society is as bad as any other anachronism.
The Sea Road, derived from three Norse sagas, largely avoids these pitfalls; Margaret Elphinstone manages to be physically most evocative, while convincing me, at least, that she has worked to imagine how an 11th century Viking might have thought and felt. The novel concerns early Norse journeys to Greenland and then Vinland (that's to say, America). Her principal character is Gudrid, a woman who once sailed with her menfolk to the chilly shores across the Atlantic and who, while in Rome, relates her adventures to a young Icelandic monk.
In one passage, Gudrid, her husband, their longship and crew are trapped in a settlement in Greenland for a terrible, hard winter. As if the freezing conditions aren't enough, a killing sickness strikes them. One by one, the crew die. The hardships are described with chilly power, but Elphinstone also manages the considerable feat of introducing ghosts from which Gudrid must free herself, and does this very believably. Similarly, in the tragic first encounters between the Norsemen (and women) and the natives of North America, she avoids blame and brutality but depicts two warrior societies colliding with predictable results. The Sea Road is a short, terse novel, an excellent example of 'less is more'. The prose is often luminous, and the whole a most satisfying read.
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