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Book Review:
97-year-old novel wows reviewer

Vows (volume 1)

Sigrid Undset, 1925

I just finished reading a great novel, Vows, vol. 1 of Sigrid Undset's tetralogy, Olav Andunsson in a translation by Tiina Nunnally. This novel, published in 1925, is set in 13th century Norway. The novel is the story of the fraught, tortured relationship between Olav, a Norwegian nobleman, raised as a foster child after his father's death by another noble family whose patriarch binds one of his daughters, Ingunn, to Olav in a promise of marriage when they are young children. In their late teens, Olav and Ingunn are denied permission to marry by her kinsmen following her father's death. Olav and Ingunn flee, and through the help of a benefactor seek the intervention of the local Bishop. The novel's drama steadily intensifies to an excruciating degree as Olav and Ingunn choose their fates as they break the moral guidelines of a kin based morality described in depth and with extraordinary nuance by Undset. This moral system predominated around the world until modern times as spelled out Joseph's Heidrich's tour de force of history and social anthropology, The WEIRDest people in the World (2020).


Superlatives do not do justice to Undset's historical novels, Kristin Lavransdatter, The Master of Hestviken and Olav Anndusson. Undset's ability to grasp the psychology, moral beliefs and conflicts, temptations and suffering of her characters in a social milieu vastly different from our own rivals the greatest novelists in other languages. Her story of Ingunn's suffering has a painful, memorable intensity.  Vows is only book one of this series. I cannot imagine how a book of this intensity and narrative quality can be followed by three additional novels, a revelation I and other readers will have to wait for, as Tiina Nunnally's  translation of vol. 2, Providence, has not yet been published.                      

-- Dee Wilson

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