Recommendation: You’d read for the atmosphere rather than the information
Where to read: Not appropriate for beach reading – save this for a chilly winter evening or five
Read with: Aquavit, obviously
In brief: It’s a rather charming history/personal quest/memoir in the style of Don Watson’s American Journeys. Selecting a range of stories, anecdotes and particularly poignant encounters, Ferguson turns what could have been either disjointed history or bad sociology into an eminently readable literary photomosaic.
About seven years ago I developed the habit of cycling to uni while listening to the BBC History Extra podcast (nerdy, I will acknowledge, but what did you expect). I have a particularly vivid memory of one particular episode -an extended interview with an expert on the Icelandic sagas called Dr Emily Lethbridge. As part of her research, she had travelled extensively around Iceland visiting (or locating) the places where various sagas were set. I don’t remember much of it well now (and the podcast isn’t on the BBC website anymore, alas) however her invocation of these strange, otherworldly landscapes where magic and jötnar and Odin, Frigga and Thor make perfect sense still sticks in my mind. Against that background, I am aware there is something ironic about picking this up at the height of the Australian summer but never mind…
This is a smorgasbord of stories rather than a narrative. Structured chronologically in the loosest sense of the word, it meanders seemingly at random through conversations in modern dive bars, historical events of varying magnitude and assorted asides on a range of topics. It’s a stream-of-consciousness pastiche of a book rather than a straightforward exposition and it’s all the better for it.
Strikingly, the “I set out to write about how Scandinavians are all melancholic Hamlets and it turns out it’s more complex” premise pretty much works. In Ferguson’s hands it comes across as a genuine enquiry rather than the affectation it so easily could have been. He also doesn’t pretend to have answers – “in search of the soul of the north” is an accurate subtitle, “finding the soul of the north” would have been gross exaggeration.
Part of the joy is the seeming randomness of these stories, ranging from royal history to chance encounters with grave mounds and the trials and travails of Norway’s great playwrights. It’s frustrating if you’re after solutions, easy takeaways or quotable quotes but if you’re happy to read for the sake of the journey not the destination, it’s delightful.
By way of warning, it’s long and it feels longer. Fortunately, the structure makes it pretty easy to put down and pick back up so pace yourself and don’t feel like you need to binge read.
The Kirkus review is on point.