With the polar vortex in full swing stateside and temperatures in the UK looking not dissimilar to my current bank balance, the release of Caroline Lea’s Icelandic ghost story/murder mystery, The Glass Woman, could not have come at a better time.
The novel follows Rósa, a young woman who moves to Stykkishólmur to live with her new husband, Jón. But the village is full of watching eyes, and each new person comes with their own set of suspicions and suspicious circumstances. Jón buried his first wife, Anna, in the middle of the night, alone. Pétur, Jón’s right hand man, goes by a different name in some villages and comes from dubious and debated parentage. The loft in Jón’s home is out of bounds, yet every night Rósa hears sounds coming from above. Anna herself is rumoured to have dabbled in witchcraft before her death.
There is a constant tension throughout the novel between what is real and what isn’t. Set in 1686, Iceland has been dubiously Christianised for centuries, yet many of its people still see great power in the ancient sagas and runestones. Witch trials are increasingly common, and village leaders are also Christian spiritual leaders. Yet in The Glass Woman, myth and magic are not portrayed as unrealistic superstition: often, the supernatural answer is just as likely as the natural one. A local woman may be a talented herbalist, or perhaps she has sold her soul to the devil. The sounds from the loft may be wood creaking, the house settling, but they may also be the footsteps of a soul trapped on the wrong plane. The movement you see in the corner of your eye when the sun has set and the house is empty may be a spirit, or it might be wishful thinking.
Although it stands at a solid 400 pages, when broken down into individual plot points it would be tempting to say that little happens in The Glass Woman. The same points could be fit into a novel of half the length quite easily. But this is where the strength of the novel lies: there is a delicious tension running throughout the novel, a feeling of icy threat waiting to happen at any moment, that pulls you through. Rósa’s life is consumed by the domestic. She cleans the house, mends the men’s clothes, brings lunch to her husband in the fields, but throughout this she is being watched. Whether by her husband, the villagers, or something more, Rósa is always being watched, and while this persists she cannot settle or get comfortable.
Lea’s incredible eye for detail in her descriptions are what make this tension possible. Although Rósa is limited in the spaces she can inhabit and the new experiences she can have, rooms and objects become extensions of the underlying strain of her situation. A kitchen can turn from a safe haven into a prison; a fire can be warming one moment and suffocating the next; a glass totem can be terrifyingly fragile and a source of strength at the same time.
Many of the issues that trouble Rósa are just as pertinent to women now as they were four centuries ago. Witch hunts may be, broadly speaking, a thing of the past, but the want to act independently, to not live in fear of those who supposedly care for you, and the sacrifices women are all too often forced to make in the name of love and family, remain familiar to us even now. The Glass Woman is a book that will surprise you with all its twists and turns, while also feeling hauntingly familiar; best enjoyed in a warm bed by candlelight, and with headphones on so you can’t hear the house struggle to settle against the shrieking winds, floorboards creaking long after your housemates have gone to sleep.
The Glass Woman is available online and in bookshops in Leamington Spa, Coventry, and Kenilworth. It is also available as an ebook and audiobook. Caroline Lea is a graduate of Warwick’s BA in English Literature and Creative Writing course, which she now teaches on.
by Zoë Wells