Continuing in my reading journey through history, and following two books set in the early 1600s (The Familiars and The Mercies), my next book took me to Iceland in 1686. I first discovered Caroline Lea’s The Glass Woman when I was perusing Barnes & Noble shortly before the holidays. I’d hoped to get it as a Christmas gift, but when I didn’t, I took matters into my own hands (with a little help from a gift card). The shimmering, icy cover drew me in, but learning it was a psychological thriller set in a time and place I’d never explored made me want it even more.
The Glass Woman starts with Rósa, a young woman in a poor community. Her father’s just died and her mother is sick, and with few options available to her, she decides to marry the dark and menacing outsider, Jón, knowing he’ll be able to provide for her mother. She’ll be far away, in a town on the other side of the country, but at least her mom will be safe.
But Rósa has heard the rumors surrounding Jón and his recently deceased first wife. His apprentice, Pétur, is also shrouded in mystery and fear. Naturally, Rósa doesn’t have much trust in her new husband and his right-hand-man. To make matters worse, she spends nearly all her time alone in her new home… and it seems to be haunted. Rósa’s solitude is wearing her down, as are the scary sounds she hears when alone in her home. To top things off, there’s a second-story loft, but she’s forbidden to enter it under any circumstances. Not suspicious at all.
Although Jón seems good to her, he also isolates her, and Rósa can’t help but fear both him and Pétur. The neighbors she does meet – against Jón’s will, of course – are also tight-lipped and treat her with suspicion. If all that’s not enough, talk about Jón’s first wife, Anna, raises major questions and red flags, but good luck getting any real information out of anyone.
I admit, when I read the summary for The Glass Woman, I had a very clear idea of how I thought the story would unfold. As is usually the case, though, I was very wrong. The novel started off spooky and mysterious, but it soon moved into completely unexpected territory. You may think there are just one are two big mysteries to unravel, but as it goes on, more and more issues and secrets and surprises keep piling up. It continuously morphs and evolves, keeping the reader on their toes.
As with the previous few books I’ve read – all set around this time in history – The Glass Woman explores superstitions and religion, and how even a hint of witchcraft could lead to your execution. The story brings up familiars and runes, concepts I just learned about in The Familiars and The Mercies, respectively. It also tackles mental health, its impact on others, and how others can better or worsen mental health. We also get glimpses of racism, xenophobia, LGBTQ issues, class issues, power struggles, and more.
Although The Glass Woman incorporates a lot of bigger themes, they weave together seamlessly, painting a complete picture rather than a disjointed collage.
Each of the characters is vividly drawn, making them leap from the pages. It was easy to imagine each of them, and I love how Caroline Lea gave them each the space to come into their own. We get to see them in different lights, and understand them from different perspectives. For example, we can see Jón as a scary and domineering stranger, as a gentle and good-hearted man, and as a scared man with too much to hide. Each of these sides comes to light in turn, showing that every person is multi-dimensional and not necessarily an open book.
Beyond the human characters, the setting becomes a character of its own. My only time in Iceland was a one-hour layover there earlier this year on the way to my sister’s home in Ireland. While the airport was lovely, I’d really like to get to spend some time in the country someday. Luckily, The Glass Woman does a good job of painting its landscape. We can feel the cold reaching our bones, see the crofts nestled into their hills, hear the fury of a November blizzard. Iceland comes to life and becomes so much more than just a setting here.
The Glass Woman was a delightful read that captured my imagination and transported me from my pandemic-induced isolation. It made me swoon, it made me cry, and it will stay with me. This is a wonderfully written novel, and I’ll be looking for more from Caroline Lea.