Halldór Laxness


Independent People


Having enjoyed a couple of Danny Yee’s other recommendations, read the superlatively effusive references on the cover (“..it is the book of your life..”, “..one of the best books of the twentieth century. I can’t imagine any greater delight than coming to Independent People for the first time…”) and finding that Laxness snagged the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955, I thought, “What the hell,” and borrowed it from the local library.


OK, sure, Laxness can write. He evokes this isolated, harsh, Spartan climate and existence, and the characters and idiosyncrasies of a family living in an Icelandic sheep farm … but before you dive into this classic of our time, perhaps you should be warned that this is, not to put too fine a point on it, really tedious. OK, right, Bjartur is stubborn. Yes, he’s fiercely independent. No, he doesn’t like cows. We get it. No really, we’ve got it. Buddy, you’ve made your point. And it’s not like there are clever or insightful scenes along the way. Sure it’s a relief when another character pops in, the surly minister or the condescending Baliff’s wife, but these incidents only feel good because they’re a relief from the general monotony – they don’t stand alone. I stuck it out for a couple of hundred pages, and it gave me a lot more sleep (I tend to read in bed at night, and gripping books keep me up), but it became one of those books that I can’t stay faithful to. Normally I’ll manage serial monogamy, but along the way with this laborious tome I found myself tempted off towards other books that I actually felt like reading. It was like being back in school and having to drag myself through ‘Great Expectations’, or at uni with the similarly bloated ‘Moby Dick’[1] – except I’m not in school anymore (at least, not as a pupil), so Halldór is heading back to the library half unread, and I’ll get back to the Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. Or some Lively. Or Goldsworthy. Or the Kmart catalogue. Whatever.


I suppose this review might see me dismissed as a soulless philistine, but it could be a handy touchstone: if you loved this book, have a look at my other reviews, find out what else I’ve panned, and you’ll probably dig them too. I sincerely wish you well.


October 2005


[1] And to think that Melville started out writing cracking page turners based on his own incredibly adventurous life. Why don’t we give the kids a break and assign some of those instead?