A few weeks ago, we had our annual staff conference at Canongate Books and one of our assignments was to pick a ‘Gem from the Vault’ – this was loosely described as a book from Canongate’s backlist that you love and want to remind people about. I poured over my bookshelves, looking at the spines for that little red door emblem, or the older one, a big C, at the bottom of all the Canongate titles I own.
I stumbled upon The Sea Road by Margaret Elphinstone and decided that it would be my Gem and set about re-reading it. I first read it at university, in fact, I think it may have been one of the first novels I actually studied there. I was lucky enough to have Margaret Elphinstone as a lecturer in Creative Writing, and there was something so exciting to be reading a book written by someone I had actually met and was being taught by. So interesting to listen to what she was saying and to read her book simultaneously, looking out for all of the techniques and narrative styles that she discussed.
The Sea Road is the story of a real life woman, Gudrid Thorbjornardóttir, whose tale had been told as part of The Vinland Sagas, Icelandic sagas describing the exploration of the Americas in the 10th century by the Norse people. What Elphinstone does is give voice to Gudrid and to tell her tale in a way that draws you into her history and brings an ancient story to life.
The tale begins in Rome, where a young Icelandic monk has been asked by a cardinal to transcribe Gudrid’s tale to shed some light on her experiences with ghosts and spirituality. The tale that follows covers so much more than that, beginning with Gudrid’s childhood in Iceland where she was raised by Halldis, the local apothecary, to her travels to Greenland and Vinland, with her first husband Thorstein and then her second husband Karlsefni.
I love the narrative of this book, as Gudrid tells her story to Agnar, it feels like she is talking to you, the reader, as well. The story of her life is never straightforward and is often invaded by thoughts about the present, or even events that happened long after the ones she is speaking about. It is really interesting to see how on looking back at a life, it is difficult to think of events a linear way. Events split by many years can seem more related than those that happened on consecutive days, and it is always hard to look back at a specific objectively time without everything that has come after seeping in and declaring its presence. It’s almost as if time (to humans at least) is not linear; it is a web of moments in a life, not minutes or days.
The story is magical, and weaves in supernatural forces, as well as covering Gudrid’s conversion to Christianity. The ghosts of the past and the gods that she used to worship haunt her though, and one of the most affecting passages in the book is at the death of her first husband, Thorstein, when Gudrid battles with the ghosts of lost souls. I loved this supernatural element to the book and it gave a sense of perspective to the seclusion that the people felt in their exploration of new lands and their need for gods to guide them and bless them on the seas and the land.
Agnar talks to Gudrid but we never hear his voice except in the preface and epilogue; it is not his story that is important as we hear Gudrid’s replies to him. She is the central character, the one who needs a voice. What is interesting about her tale is that sometimes there are things that she can’t say, the italicised passages that we get in the book seem like the voice of the gods (or a god), looking down on all that is happening and giving us a seemingly objective view. Our memory of our lives is never comprehensive and sometimes we need a helping hand to fill in the gaps.
I remember when I read The Sea Road all those years ago at the beginning of uni that I was drawn into this tale. I always loved stories to do with Vikings and this one transported me to a similar place, of sea travellers and settlers, living off the land and trading with people from all over. It almost recalled the inquisitiveness of primary school days, when history feels new as you haven’t discovered it before and its foreignness is all quite exciting. I really enjoyed reading this book again and I would love to read more of Elphinstone’s books. I’ve been directed towards Voyageurs as my next port of call – duly added to the wish list!