The Glass Woman by Caroline Lea

With its cold Icelandic setting, dark atmosphere and shades of classic Gothic novels, this would have been an ideal winter read, but for me it was a spring one, finished towards the end of April – and now here I am writing about it in June, at the beginning of summer. An indication of how far behind I am with everything, but I know I will catch up eventually!

Anyway, The Glass Woman opens in November 1686 with a body rising to the surface of the frozen sea just off the coast of Iceland. Amongst the crowd who gather to watch and to try to pull the body from the water is one man who knows more than he’s willing to admit. A man who ‘remembers carrying the heavy body in the winding sheet, weighted with stones; remembers his wound paining him as they scraped through the snow and smashed the ice with long staves before sliding the body in’.

We then go back a few months to the August of that year, when Rósa comes to live in the village of Stykkishólmur with her new husband, Jón. She knows very little about Jón but he had promised to see that her ailing mother was cared for if she married him, so she felt she had to accept his proposal. Rósa finds it difficult to settle into her new life; she misses her mother and her childhood friend Páll and her husband is proving to be disappointingly cold and distant. The other women of the village seem to be reluctant to befriend Rósa and she soon discovers that this is because there is some sort of mystery surrounding the death of Jón’s first wife, Anna.

Alone and isolated in Jón’s croft, Rósa listens to strange noises coming from the loft above but she is unable to investigate because her husband keeps the loft door locked and has forbidden her to try to enter. He expects her to be meek and obedient, as symbolised by the small glass woman he gave her as a wedding present, but Rósa has other ideas. She has questions that must be answered. Who or what has been hidden away in that secret locked room? What really happened to Anna? And what sort of man has she married?

The Glass Woman is a beautifully written novel; Iceland is a setting I always find atmospheric and interesting and in this book it is more than just a setting – the landscape itself plays a part in the development of the story. I liked Rósa and understood how difficult the situation was that she found herself in, unable to trust her husband yet doing her best to make the marriage work, while suspecting that he may have done something terrible and that she herself could be in danger.

Most of the novel is written from Rósa’s point of view, but there are also some chapters narrated by another character and set at a slightly earlier time. Although this did help to fill in some of the gaps in Rósa’s knowledge, I thought it was done in a way that confused things rather than clarified them. The structure seemed to slow the story down and I didn’t find myself becoming fully absorbed until near the end of the book when the various threads began to come together and the truth started to emerge.

Overall, though, I did enjoy reading The Glass Woman. Some of the plot elements in the first half of the book made me think of Jane Eyre and others of Rebecca, but as the story moved forward I knew it wasn’t going to be exactly like either of those other novels and that Caroline Lea had written something quite different.

Thanks to the publisher Michael Joseph for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

17 thoughts on “The Glass Woman by Caroline Lea

  1. Liz says:

    Great review, Helen, thanks! I would have been inclined to pick this up on the basis of the cover alone lol – add to this Iceland + gothic + winter setting = a must read!

  2. heavenali says:

    This sounds good overall, Iceland is a great setting for an historical novel. It’s a shame that the changing narrator didn’t work, sounds like it should have been better.

  3. Judy Krueger says:

    Novels set in Iceland seem to always be good and many are great! I think this would make a good reading group pick as well.
    PS: I am also trying to catch up on my reviews. I have finally gotten to books I have read this month. But I am reading so much that it seems I will never catch up.

    • Helen says:

      I don’t know when I will catch up! I’m concentrating on trying to review this month’s reads so I don’t get even further behind, but I still have a few more from April and May to write about.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, there was more that I liked about it than disliked. I think Iceland is always an interesting setting. I will have to try reading something by Halldor Laxness.

  4. FictionFan says:

    I was so tempted by this one but decided I simply couldn’t fit it in. Now I’m really regretting that decision! I’m glad you said it isn’t exactly Jane Eyre-ish because I was beginning to wonder, but now I’m intrigued as to where the story goes…

    • Helen says:

      Oh, that’s a shame! I hope you still get a chance to read it at some point. It did seem very like Jane Eyre at the start, but there were some surprises later on!

    • Helen says:

      It’s one of those books where the location really is an intrinsic part of the story – it probably wouldn’t have worked had it been set anywhere else.

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