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Merle

Merle

The Greenlanders - Jane Smiley The Greenlanders is an exceptionally well-written bit of historical fiction, detailing the little-known history of the Norse settlement in Greenland from the mid-14th to early-15th century. While the story focuses primarily on one family, there is no real protagonist, and the narrative slips in and out of the lives of many members of the small community.

Smiley (no relation of mine, sadly!) consciously adopts the style of an oral epic, paying attention to the rhythm of the prose and repeating certain phrases ("It was the case that. . . ."). But there are other consequences of this style as well: there's a certain emotional distance from all the characters, who play their roles in the story but let little of their personalities or emotions shine through, compared to characters in most modern novels. There's also a certain lack of explanations and description, which, while I understand that it was a deliberate choice, bothered me somewhat: it's another way of keeping the reader at a distance.

Which isn't to say that this isn't an enjoyable or absorbing book, by any means. I wouldn't call it a "page-turner," but still didn't want to put it down once I got into it. Not surprisingly, a lot happens in the book, with major events often treated with great detachment, as there's just so much to get through. Memory and the passage of time are dealt with quite a bit; we see events that happened early in the book become legends, while other early events are forgotten about completely and disbelieved when someone mentions them half a century later. We're also witnesses to the slow decline of the Greenlander civilization: before the beginning of the book, one of the two settlements has already been abandoned, and the Greenlanders fold in on themselves more and more as time progresses. Their detachment from European civilization, and the little that we do hear about Europe in the book, provide an interesting backdrop to their daily struggles.

As a literary book, I suppose this one is meant to be able to be interpreted in many different ways, and it's interesting to see how other people here have interpreted it quite differently from me: for instance, I saw the native population as being quite minor and Smiley as deliberately downplaying their role. The "skraelings" remain an enigma, with characters telling us about them far more than we actually see them.

At any rate, I found this to be an admirable book, although I'd advise people to read the preview before ordering it, as it's not for everyone. I round down to four stars not because I found the book to be flawed, but because I found the level of detachment to be a bit much. I understand that the Greenlanders expressed very little, and that they would have found no need to explain things about their culture when they didn't realize that things could be any other way; but the book was neither narrated by, written by or written for ancient Greenlanders, and this kept the book from being as memorable as it otherwise might have been. Still, overall an excellent piece of literature.