Cover of book: The Sorrow Stone

Kári Gíslason
The Sorrow Stone

A comb carved from deer antler placed in a dead woman’s hand; a golden arm ring wrapped in a bloodied cloth; a cloak of blue “that would stand for the colour of his eyes and the sea and the sky” that covers the body of a loved one. In Kári Gíslason’s novel The Sorrow Stone, every object is a key that unlocks a story, and stories run through the lives of the characters with the same life-giving force as the blood that courses under their skin.

Set when Icelandic society was beginning to convert to Christianity, the story of The Sorrow Stone is drawn from Gisli Sursson’s Saga. For the novel’s characters, the Icelandic sagas are not artefacts of a lost world but life-shaping realities that exist in the here and now. Their beauty, cruelty and complexity affect the lives of all who hear them and even those who tell them, revealing not only how the past shapes the present, but also how it might determine the future.

At the centre of the novel is Disa, a woman caught up in a web of betrayal and retribution. Murderous jealousies and family loyalties pit neighbour against neighbour; custom and the obligation for revenge tear even the closest families apart. After her first love, her brother and her husband are murdered, Disa violently attacks her brother’s killer and has to run for her life with her young son. She seeks refuge with someone who may or may not offer it, risking everything to carry out one last familial duty and to reveal to her son a secret that may destroy their relationship.

In lifting Disa from the densely populated weave of the Icelandic sagas and teasing out her story from their tangle of kinships and events, Gíslason has given her a rich emotional life. She is a secondary figure in a saga of blood and honour – of men killing men – but here she stands centre stage. The narrator of her own tale, she has a complex inner life, capable of deep, abiding love and implacable anger. Like a shard of pottery dug out of the earth and brought into the light to reveal its true shape and colour, Disa’s story is given its true emotional weight and human consequence.

Gíslason’s prose is wonderfully controlled; it can be as stark and harsh as some of the landscapes he so beautifully describes, and at other times is imbued with a quiet but deeply felt lyricism.

Disa ponders how swiftly news travels from house to house, community to community, how stories spread across the country “like the wind into a hall when two doors open at once”. Gíslason unlocks and opens the doors to Disa’s story, and it might just blow you away.

Daniel Keene

UQP, 240pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 5, 2022 as "The Sorrow Stone, Kári Gíslason".

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Daniel Keene is a playwright and critic.

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