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Originally published Friday, March 13, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

"The Tricking of Freya:" A modern Icelandic saga by author Christina Sunley

"The Tricking of Freya," author Christina Sunley's debut novel, showcases her grasp of the culture and lore of Iceland. Sunley reads Monday, March 16, at the Nordic Heritage Museum in Seattle.

Seattle Times book editor

Author reading

Christina Sunley

She will discuss "The Tricking of Freya" at 7 p.m. Monday, Nordic Heritage Museum, 3014 67th St. N.W., Seattle; free (206-789-5707 or www.nordicmuseum.org).

The river of contemporary literature written by immigrants to North America just gets wider and deeper. Novelists such as Junot Diaz (from the Dominican Republic) and Jhumpa Lahiri (daughter of educated immigrants from India), have mined the mother lode of material generated by tensions between the old world and the new — and readers are the richer for it.

Now comes "The Tricking of Freya" (St. Martin's Press, 344 pp., $25.95), an impressive debut novel by San Francisco writer Christina Sunley. This time the immigrants are Icelanders who have settled in the Canadian province of Manitoba. But Sunley's characters wrestle with the same immigrant dilemmas — the search for identity in a culture that overwhelms the one left behind; the love/hate relationship with a past made more glamorous by the mundane present.

As the story begins, Freya Norris, the narrator, leads a subterranean existence as a printer in a Manhattan darkroom.

Telling her story in flashback/retrospective form, Freya recounts her lineage as the granddaughter of Olafur, a famous poet who emigrated to Gimli (Icelandic for heaven), a village on Lake Winnipeg. Olafur was driven from Iceland after a disastrous 1875 volcanic eruption buried his farm in ash. He became the keeper of the Icelandic cultural and linguistic flame, and though he has died, his family remains in Gimli.

So why did Anna, Freya's mother and Olafur's daughter, elect to raise her child in a bland Connecticut suburb, refusing even to visit Gimli for Freya's first seven years?

Some answers emerge when Anna finally takes Freya north and west to visit. Freya meets her Aunt Birdie, her mother's loquacious and temperamental sister. There's unresolved tension between Birdie and Anna; Birdie immediately upbraids Anna for not teaching Freya Icelandic.

Then Freya sets in motion an accident that will separate her from her mother (the unlikely nature of this freak accident and its catastrophic aftermath constitute some of the few false notes in this book). She is drawn further into the Birdie whirlwind, and it becomes clear to the reader that Birdie suffers from bipolar disorder (called manic depression in the 1970s). When Birdie eventually spirits Freya away to Iceland, Freya, now a teenager, is confronted with unresolved questions about her own past and family heritage.

This novel works on several levels: as a drama of family dynamics; as an immigrant story; and as a showcase for the author's broad and deep knowledge of Iceland. The reader learns the intricacies of the Icelandic language ("Guttormur Guttormsson was a great poet. But if you said a poem was written by him, you'd have to call him Guttormi Guttomssyni").

There's an armchair tour of a country of unparalleled beauty and strangeness — "The white tops of the glaciers melded into the white underbelly of the freezing sky. Nothing ... could grow here, I thought. Then I looked down and saw the tiniest flower possible sprouted among the rubble, pink petals tipped with ice."

As Sunley's story barrels to its conclusion, the life-altering "trick" played on Freya will become obvious to any astute reader. But the realization doesn't diminish the pleasures available from this multilayered novel.

Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357

or mgwinn@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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