Did you know that in Iceland, more books are written, published and sold per person, per year, than anywhere else on the planet? One in ten Icelanders will publish something in their lifetime, an extraordinary feat. The odds of reading books set in Iceland are rather high!
The most classic piece of Icelandic literature is The Sagas of Icelanders, a series of medieval stories that portray Iceland’s viking history. Since then, contemporary fiction has evolved and books set in Iceland explore a wide range of themes about this remote country. ❄
If you’re planning a trip to Iceland, try starting with the bestseller Burial Rites, the dark and funny 101 Reykjavik or crime novel Jar City (the first in a series of 11 books to be translated into English). If you prefer non-fiction, start with Names for the Sea a memoir about moving to Iceland or The Almost Nearly Perfect People an insight into the Nordic countries.
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Where To Read In Reykjavik
During my own travels around Iceland, the volcanic landscape was much too distracting for reading on the road! As it was winter and daylight hours were fleeting, my favorite places to settle down with a book were all in the capital Reykjavik during the evenings, the cosy book-filled Laundromat Cafe, mid-century styled Mokka Kaffi and the candlelit lobby of my hip hotel Kex Hostel. If you haven’t been to magical Iceland, I hope you’ll consider adding it to your wishlist!
Books Set In Iceland
by Hannah Kent, 2013
A brilliant literary debut, inspired by a true story: the final days of a young woman accused of murder in Iceland in 1829. Set against Iceland’s stark landscape, Hannah Kent brings to vivid life the story of Agnes, who, charged with the brutal murder of her former master, is sent to an isolated farm to await execution.
Horrified at the prospect of housing a convicted murderer, the family at first avoids Agnes. Only Tóti, a priest Agnes has mysteriously chosen to be her spiritual guardian, seeks to understand her. But as Agnes’s death looms, the farmer’s wife and their daughters learn there is another side to the sensational story they’ve heard.
by Hallgrímur Helgason, 1996
Hlynur Björn is an unemployed 30-something loner, still living with his mum, who spends his days on the Internet, watching satellite TV, and gazing at girls in the pub. But Hlynur’s cosy, unthreatening world is shaken when his mother comes out as a lesbian, and her Spanish girlfriend Lolla moves into their home. 101 Reykjavík is a first-person account of a blackly funny and bizarre love triangle, a dark, comic tale of perverse sexuality and slacker culture in Iceland’s trendy capital city that pokes fun along the way at such foibles of our culture as CNN weather reports and porn videos.
Jar City (Inspector Erlendur Series 3/11)
by Arnaldur Indriðason, 2005
When a lonely old man is found murdered in his Reykjavík flat, the only clues are a cryptic note left by the killer and a photograph of a young girl’s grave. Inspector Erlendur, who heads the investigation team, discovers that many years ago the victim was accused, though not convicted, of an unsolved crime. Did the old man’s past come back to haunt him?
The Sagas of Icelanders
by Anonymous, 1200
In Iceland, the age of the Vikings is also known as the Saga Age. A unique body of medieval literature, the Sagas rank with the world’s great literary treasures – as epic as Homer, as deep in tragedy as Sophocles, as engagingly human as Shakespeare. Set around the turn of the last millennium, these stories depict with an astonishingly modern realism the lives and deeds of the Norse men and women who first settled in Iceland and of their descendants, who ventured farther west to Greenland and, ultimately, North America. Sailing as far from the archetypal heroic adventure as the long ships did from home, the Sagas are written with psychological intensity, peopled by characters with depth, and explore perennial human issues like love, hate, fate and freedom.
by Bragi Ólafsson, 2001
Emil is back in Reykjavik from a trip to London. On the plane ride home he met a beautiful girl named Greta. He’s hoping Greta will call – and that she won’t call while he’s on the phone with his girlfriend, Vigdis. The moment he settles down at home, Havard, a drunken, violent lout from Emil’s past, shows up on his doorstep. Spying Havard through a window–and not wanting to have anything to do with him–Emil does the only sensible thing he can think of: he hides under his bed and waits for Havard to go away.
Stone Tree (Milli Trjánna, Between The Trees)
by Gyrðir Elíasson, 2005
Along the lonely western shores of Iceland, among its vast mountain ranges and its barren lava fields, this sublime collection of short stories blends the desires and efforts of its numerous protagonists, nearly all intent on taking leave of their normal lives in order to pursue their dreams more seriously. Despite the desolation of their surroundings, the characters encounter strange company: ghostly presences in the early hours, enviable neighbors, and fellow writers with remarkably similar ambitions.
The Tricking of Freya
by Christina Sunley, 2009
A young woman obsessed with uncovering a family secret is drawn into the strange and magical history, language and landscape of Iceland. Freya Morris grows up in a typical American suburb – but every summer, she enters another realm entirely when she visits her relatives in Gimli, a tiny village in Canada settled by Icelandic immigrants. Here she falls under the spell of her troubled but charming aunt Birdie, who thrills her with stories of exotic Norse goddesses, moody Viking bards, and the life of her late grandfather, the most famous poet of “New Iceland.”
The Worst Thing
by Aaron Elkins, 2011
For Bryan Bennett, designing hostage negotiation programs is the perfect job-as long as he keeps a safe, theoretical distance. What he can’t do is deal directly with kidnappers or their victims, as a result of his own abduction and imprisonment as a small boy. Thirty-some years later, intense nightmares still plague his sleep, and a fear of enclosed spaces prevents him from attempting to travel. So when Bryan’s boss asks him to fly to Reykjavik, Iceland, to teach his corporate-level kidnapping and extortion seminar, he automatically says no.
The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia
by Michael Booth, 2014
Journalist Michael Booth has lived among the Scandinavians for more than ten years and has grown increasingly frustrated with the rose-tinted view of this part of the world offered up by the Western media. In this timely book, he leaves his adopted home of Denmark and embarks on a journey through all five of the Nordic countries to discover who these curious tribes are, the secrets of their success, and, most intriguing of all, what they think of one another.
The Blue Fox
by Sjón, 2000
The year is 1883. The stark Icelandic winter landscape is the backdrop. We follow the priest, Skugga-Baldur, on his hunt for the enigmatic blue fox. From there we’re then transported to the world of the naturalist Friðrik B. Friðriksson and his charge, Abba, who suffers from Down’s syndrome, and who came to his rescue when he was on the verge of disaster. Then to a shipwreck off the Icelandic coast in the spring of 1868.
The Whispering Muse
by Sjón, 2005
The year is 1949 and Valdimar Haraldsson, an eccentric Icelander with elevated ideas about the influence of fish consumption on Nordic civilisation, has had the singular good fortune to be invited to join a Danish merchant ship on its way to the Black Sea.
Among the crew is the mythical hero Caeneus, disguised as the second mate. Every evening after dinner he entrances his fellow travellers with the tale of how he sailed with the fabled vessel the Argo on the Argonauts’ quest to retrieve the Golden Fleece.
From the Mouth of the Whale
by Sjón, 2008
The year is 1635. Iceland is a world darkened by superstition, poverty and cruelty. Men of science marvel over a unicorn’s horn, poor folk worship the Virgin in secret and both books and men are burnt. Jónas Pálmason, a poet and self-taught healer, has been condemned to exile for heretical conduct, having fallen foul of the local magistrate. Banished to a barren island, Jónas recalls his exorcism of a walking corpse on the remote Snjafjoll coast, the frenzied massacre of innocent Basque whalers at the hands of local villagers, and the deaths of three of his children.
Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was
by Sjón, 2013
Máni Steinn is queer in a society in which the idea of homosexuality is beyond the furthest extreme. His city, Reykjavik in 1918, is homogeneous and isolated and seems entirely defenseless against the Spanish flu, which has already torn through Europe, Asia, and North America and is now lapping up on Iceland’s shores. And if the flu doesn’t do it, there’s always the threat that war will spread all the way north. And yet the outside world has also brought Icelanders cinema!
The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning
by Hallgrímur Helgason, 2008
With some 66 hits under his belt, Tomislav Bokšić, or Toxic, has a flawless record as hitman for the Croatian mafia in New York. That is, until he kills the wrong guy and is forced to flee the States, leaving behind the life he knows and loves. Suddenly, he finds himself on a plane hurtling toward Reykjavík, Iceland, disguised as an American televangelist named Father Friendly. With no means of escape from this island devoid of gun shops, this island with absolutely no tradition for contract killing, he is forced to come to terms with his bloody past and reevaluate his future, to tragicomic effect.
by Halldór Laxness, 1934
This magnificent novel—which secured for its author the 1955 Nobel Prize in Literature—is at last available to contemporary American readers. Although it is set in the early twentieth century, it recalls both Iceland’s medieval epics and such classics as Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter. And if Bjartur of Summerhouses, the book’s protagonist, is an ordinary sheep farmer, his flinty determination to achieve independence is genuinely heroic and, at the same time, terrifying and bleakly comic.
by Halldór Laxness, 1943
Sometimes grim, sometimes uproarious, and always captivating, Iceland’s Bell by Nobel Laureate Halldór Laxness is at once an updating of the traditional Icelandic saga and a caustic social satire. At the close of the 17th century, Iceland is an oppressed Danish colony, suffering under extreme poverty, famine, and plague. A farmer and accused cord-thief named Jon Hreggvidsson makes a bawdy joke about the Danish king and soon after finds himself a fugitive charged with the murder of the king’s hangman.
The Atom Station
by Halldór Laxness, 1948
When the Americans make an offer to buy land in Iceland to build a NATO airbase after the Second World War, a storm of protest is provoked throughout the country. Narrated by a country girl from the north, the novel follows her experiences after she takes up employment as a maid in the house of her Member of Parliament. Her observations and experiences expose the bourgeois society of the south as rootless and shallow and in stark contrast to the age-old culture of the solid and less fanciful north.
The Fish Can Sing
by Halldór Laxness, 1957
The orphan Alfgrimur has spent an idyllic childhood sheltered in the simple turf cottage of a generous and eccentric elderly couple. Alfgrimur dreams only of becoming a fisherman like his adoptive grandfather, until he meets Iceland’s biggest celebrity. The opera singer Gardar Holm’s international fame is a source of tremendous pride to tiny, insecure Iceland, though no one there has ever heard him sing. A mysterious man who mostly avoids his homeland and repeatedly fails to perform for his adoring countrymen, Gardar takes a particular interest in Alfgrimur’s budding musical talent and urges him to seek out the world beyond the one he knows and loves.
Under the Glacier
by Halldór Laxness, 1968
Nobel laureate Halldór Laxness’s Under the Glacier is a one-of-a-kind masterpiece, a wryly provocative novel at once earthy and otherworldly. At its outset, the Bishop of Iceland dispatches a young emissary to investigate certain charges against the pastor at Snaefells Glacier, who, among other things, appears to have given up burying the dead. But once he arrives, the emissary finds that this dereliction counts only as a mild eccentricity in a community that regards itself as the center of the world and where Creation itself is a work in progress. What is the emissary to make, for example, of the boarded-up church?
The Faraway Nearby
by Rebecca Solnit, 2013
Rebecca Solnit explores the ways we make our lives out of stories, and how we are connected by empathy, by narrative, by imagination. In the course of unpacking some of her own stories—of her mother and her decline from memory loss, of a trip to Iceland, of an illness—Solnit revisits fairytales and entertains other stories: about arctic explorers, Che Guevara among the leper colonies, and Mary Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein, about warmth and coldness, pain and kindness, decay and transformation, making art and making self.
by Bragi Ólafsson, 2006
Sturla Jón Jónsson, the fifty-something building superintendent and sometimes poet, has been invited to a poetry festival in Vilnius, Lithuania, appointed, as he sees it, as the official representative of the people of Iceland to the field of poetry. His latest poetry collection, published on the eve of his trip to Vilnius, is about to cause some controversy in his home country – Sturla is publicly accused of having stolen the poems from his long-dead cousin, Jónas.
by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, 2007
Young Lobbi was preparing to leave his childhood home, his autistic brother, his octogenarian father, and the familiar landscape of mossy lava fields for an unknown future. Soon before his departure, he received an awful phone call: his mother was in a car accident. She used her dying words to offer calm advice to her son, urging him to continue their shared work in the greenhouse tending to the rare Rosa candida. Prior to his mother’s death, in that very same greenhouse, Lobbi made love to Anna, a friend of a friend, and just as he readies his departure he learns that in their brief night together they conceived a child.
Butterflies in November
by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, 2004
After a day of being dumped – twice – and accidentally killing a goose, a young woman yearns for a tropical vacation far away from the chaos of her life. Instead, her plans are thrown off course by her best friend’s four-year-old deaf-mute son, thrust into her reluctant care. But when the boy chooses the winning numbers for a lottery ticket, the two of them set off on a road trip across Iceland with a glove compartment stuffed full of their jackpot earnings.
Snowblind (Dark Iceland Series 1/5)
by Ragnar Jónasson, 2009
Siglufjörður: an idyllically quiet fishing village in Northern Iceland, where no one locks their doors – accessible only via a small mountain tunnel. Ari Thór Arason: a rookie policeman on his first posting, far from his girlfriend in Reykjavik – with a past that he’s unable to leave behind. When a young woman is found lying half-naked in the snow, bleeding and unconscious, and a highly esteemed, elderly writer falls to his death in the local theatre, Ari is dragged straight into the heart of a community where he can trust no one, and secrets and lies are a way of life.
Reply to a Letter From Helga (Svar Við Bréfi Helgu)
by Bergsveinn Birgisson, 2010
Bjarni has long held on to a letter from former lover Helga, with whom he shared an illicit, impassioned love. Her letter invited him to leave his wife and his farm and pursue prosperity in the city, where World War II had brought an influx of American marines and opportunities for work. But he chose not to reply. Years later, as he reflects on a long and simple life among the sheep in the Icelandic hillsides, he finally finds himself ready to explain why.
Justice Undone (Grámosinn Glóir)
by Thor Vilhjálmsson, 1986
This Nordic Prize winner for 1988 is a story of incest and infanticide set in the remote hinterlands of 19th-century Iceland. Based on a true story, Justice Undone is a compelling novel of obsession and aversion. An idealistic young magistrate (a figure inspired by the Whitmanesque Icelandic writer Einar Benediktsson) undertakes his first case. His geographical and emotional journey into bleak, unknown territory, where dream mingles sensuously with the world of the Sagas, tests him to the limit.
by Fríða Á. Sigurðardóttir, 1990
Night Watch can, on the face of it, be read as a family saga, but it also questions its own genre, its form being conventional least of all. Nina, the narrator of the novel, is, on the surface, a successful businesswoman in the advertising world. But she is also another woman harbouring the memories of the lives of four generations of women when she is sitting at her mother’s deathbed. These two levels of experience combine in Nina’s story in a subjective and fragmented way, but, at the same time, her memories and experience explain the contrasts between old female roles and modern ways of living.
The Journey Home
by Olaf Olafsson, 1999
For years, Disa has lived a quiet life, managing an English country-house hotel with her companion Anthony. However, upon learning that she is terminally ill, Disa decides it is time to travel back to the village in Iceland where she was born. Olaf Olafsson takes the reader with Disa on her quietly heroic journey as she heads north, seeking a resolution to painful matters she has spent most of her life trying to forget.
I Remember You
by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, 2010
In an isolated village in the Icelandic Westfjords, three friends set to work renovating a derelict house. But soon they realise they are not alone there – something wants them to leave, and it’s making its presence felt. Meanwhile, in a town across the fjord, a young doctor investigating the suicide of an elderly woman discovers that she was obsessed with his vanished son.
When the two stories collide the terrifying truth is uncovered…
Last Rituals (Thóra Gudmundsdóttir Series 1/6)
by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, 2005
At a university in Reykjavík, the body of a young German student is discovered, his eyes cut out and strange symbols carved into his chest. Police waste no time in making an arrest, but the victim’s family isn’t convinced that the right man is in custody. They ask Thóra Guðmundsdóttir, an attorney and single mother of two, to investigate. It isn’t long before Thóra and her associate, Matthew Reich, uncover the deceased student’s obsession with Iceland’s grisly history of torture, execution, and witch hunts.
Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland
by Sarah Moss, 2012
Novelist Sarah Moss had a childhood dream of moving to Iceland, sustained by a wild summer there when she was nineteen. In 2009, she saw an advertisement for a job at the University of Iceland and applied on a whim, despite having two young children and a comfortable life in an English cathedral city. The resulting adventure was shaped by Iceland’s economic collapse, which halved the value of her salary, by the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull and by a collection of new friends, including a poet who saw the only bombs fall on Iceland in 1943, a woman who speaks to elves and a chef who guided Sarah’s family around the intricacies of Icelandic cuisine.
Where the Shadows Lie (Fire and Ice Series 1/6)
by Michael Ridpath
Amid Iceland’s wild, volcanic landscape, rumours swirl of an eight-hundred-year-old manuscript inscribed with a long-lost saga about a ring of terrible power. A rediscovered saga alone would be worth a fortune, but, if the rumours can be believed, there is something much more valuable about this one. Something worth killing for. Something that will cost Professor Agnar Haraldsson his life.
Angels of the Universe
by Einar Már Guðmundsson, 1993
Born on the day Iceland joined NATO, this novel’s unstable narrator worries this and other incidental phenomena into a highly complex, hilarious, and tragic cosmology. More interested in David Bowie and the Beatles than the Nordic sagas that shape the lives of the working-class peoples of Reykjavik, Paul retreats into his own fantastic, schizophrenic, painful world. His madness springs from bits of reality and brighter strikes of insanity. Out-of-work and aimless, tormented by bouts of drinking and ferocious tantrums, Paul walks Reykjavik’s streets scaring his family lusting after women, recounting petty humiliations, and imagining the forces that both guide and haunt him.
Gnarr! How I Became the Mayor of a Large City in Iceland and Changed the World
by Jón Gnarr, 2014
It all started when Jón Gnarr founded the Best Party in 2009 to satirize his country’s political system. The financial collapse in Iceland had, after all, precipitated the world-wide meltdown, and fomented widespread protest over the country’s leadership. Entering the race for mayor of Reykjavík, Iceland’s capital, Gnarr promised to get the dinosaurs from Jurassic Park into downtown parks, free towels at public swimming pools, a “drug-free Parliament by 2020” and he swore he’d break all his campaign promises.
But then something strange started happening: his campaign began to succeed.
What do you think of these books set in Iceland?
Have a great book recommendation I’ve missed? Are you planning an Icelandic adventure? I’d love to hear about more about your travels and books set in Iceland in the comments below!