Sunday, December 12, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Olav Audunsson II: Providence by Sigrid Undset

 I received this book for free from Netgalley. That did not influence this review.

I just finished reading Olav Audunsson Book II: Providence by Sigrid Undset, translated by Tiina Nunnally. What an extraordinary achievement this work is. When I was approved for this book, I also bought Book 1: Vows because I knew I should read it first. I’m glad I did. I don’t think this volume, as wonderful as it is, would stand on its own. To fully appreciate what these characters are going through, the backstory is needed. And the story is very well worth reading as a whole.

Providence picks up where Vows left off. The ill-fated young lovers, Olav and Ingunn, have finally been reunited after years and years of separation, guilt, and despair. They suffered extreme hardship due in large part due to cruelties of their families and society, but also due to their own small errors which were compounded by even greater sins. One thing kept leading to another in that book and they really did seem cursed by Fate. But they are now in a position to find that love will conquer all.

It does not.

Providence is a powerful and devastating book. Set in medieval Norway, the landscape is frozen and harsh. Men are dragged off to war by their kings for conflicts in which they have little stake. And God is ever present in their lives as a force that is more oppressive than hopeful. Reaching out for His grace has far-reaching consequences. Neighbors are far less forgiving than God.

Olav Audunsson is now master of a wealthy estate. He brings his wife Ingunn home. He fully intends to put the past behind them and forgive her completely. (She had a child during their years of separation, a son, born after an adulterous encounter that was less her fault than she believes it to be.) She’s unable to forgive herself. When she miscarries again and again, she comes to believe that it’s God’s punishment for her adultery and, more particularly, for abandoning her son. Olav is unable to bear her misery, so he goes and retrieves the boy from the foster parents, claiming him as his own.

This means the familial inheritance will go to an illegitimate heir who is not really Olav’s offspring. If Olav’s relatives ever found out, he’d be in big trouble for allowing the estate to pass outside the family line. It also means if Olav and Ingunn ever do have a son, he’ll take second place to the older boy. For all Olav insists it doesn’t matter to him, it does. He treats the boy as decently as he can, but he just doesn’t like him. And this drives even more of a wedge between him and his wife.

Ingunn is not the only one sunk in despair over a guilty conscience. There is also the matter of Olav’s crime. He murdered the man who seduced Ingunn and hid the evidence. All to protect her honor, of course. He grows increasingly desperate to make his peace with God but if he confesses, he’ll have to do penance, the truth will come out, and everything gained by the original secrecy will be lost. Ingunn and the boy will be harmed. Ingunn insists he can’t do that to her. So he continues to live with the unconfessed sin, growing more and more taciturn and withdrawn.

Ingunn is not a healthy woman to begin with and multiple miscarriages strip her of any strength she might have had. She’s also a terrible housekeeper/female head of an estate. The only time she shows any gumption is in defense of her son. She’s a shadow of her former self. She loses all her beauty. She’s a millstone around Olav’s neck. And yet, they still love each other with the fiercely strong remnants of their original love.

Things go from terrible to unbearable as Olav and Ingunn struggle with their despair. Every once in a while, Olav is overcome by religious conviction, but it’s leached away by Ingunn’s dependency and the knowledge that her ruined life is his fault.

This book is incredibly bleak, as this pared down plot summary shows. And yet it’s beautiful in its harsh way. The characters are so realistic, so human, that it’s impossible not to empathize with their pain.

I don’t know when Book 3 will be released but I’ll certainly read it, hoping things might turn around for Olav, but expecting they won’t.

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