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Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset

Kristin Lavransdatter - Tiina Nunnally, Sigrid Undset, Brad Leithauser

As an omnibus, the length of this classic trilogy is daunting; it was on my to-read list for years before I decided to read just the first, 300-page book. Of course that was excellent and I soon read the rest of the trilogy. While I understand the omnibus packaging – the later books assume knowledge of the earlier ones such that it is akin to one three-volume novel – for me, reading three individual novels worked best.

Kristin Lavransdatter is the life story of one woman, and the people closest to her, in 14th century Norway. The first volume follows Kristin’s childhood and her teenage romance with a man her father would never have chosen for her; the second, her life as a young wife and mother, struggling with the practical and religious fallout from her choices in the first book; and the third, her life as a middle-aged woman navigating complex relationships, while her importance in her sons’ lives diminishes. Kristin is a fascinating character, because she feels entirely realistic and human. Undset never pandered to the faction who insist that female characters be “likeable” (i.e., flawless); she simply presents the character as she is, in all her strengths and weaknesses, noble impulses and bad decisions. But I think most readers will like her and relate to her fight to marry the man she loves and to build a future for her children. It’s not all domestic life, though; political maneuvering, swordfights, and other drama keeps Kristin’s life from becoming too predictable.

Many reviews discuss the religion in these books: Catholicism is a major part of the characters’ lives, and the author herself converted. But though religious themes are present throughout, I never found the books preachy. Religion was an essential aspect of medieval life, and Undset captures that well; interestingly, while Kristin is a religious woman by today’s standards and in the eyes of some of the characters, in the context of her time and in her interactions with religious folk she seems far more interested in the secular aspects of her life, but raised to be guilty about that preoccupation.

At any rate, every aspect of life at the time, from social interaction to farming to the layout of homes, seems grounded in solid research that allows the author to create an immersive and believable setting. Few authors could write about such a foreign world in a way that’s both realistic and accessible, but that’s just what Undset does; at times it was hard to believe that the story was set in medieval times, not because there’s anachronism present (there isn’t) but because the characters are so human and relatable regardless.

The writing is excellent, and Nunnally’s translation superb: the prose is smooth and absorbing, very readable but with a hint of distance that puts the reader in mind of ancient sagas. The story has a strong sense of place, and contains beautiful descriptions of the Norwegian landscape. Like the story itself, the writing manages to be entirely accessible to the modern reader and yet faithful to its medieval setting.

In sum, this is an excellent trilogy, and fully deserving of its awards. I give four stars rather than five because it didn’t rock my world (it’s been some time since any book has), and because the middle volume often felt tedious; the second book was perhaps longer than necessary, and only toward the end did it regain strength. That said, the trilogy returns to form with an exceptional final volume. It was overall a great reading experience, providing both depth and entertainment, and one I would not hesitate to recommend.