I still believe that one of the world’s greatest marketing campaigns was the one that got people to settle in Iceland centuries before fast shipping, improved agriculture, and antibiotics. Life could be bleak. It certainly is for Rósa, the protagonist of Caroline Lea’s The Glass Woman. After her father dies, Rósa and her mother are left in penury. They eke out a living for a little while, but Rósa ends up taking the desperate step of marrying a well off man from a remote village. He agrees to send money and food to Rósa’s mother. Moving away would be daunting enough if it weren’t for the other thing about Jón: his first wife died under mysterious circumstances and rumors of witchcraft. Perhaps Rósa is exchanging one set of dangers for another.
It’s hard not to feel for Rósa. She’s in a tough situation, but she’s doing her best to take care of herself and her mother. She’s in love with a local man, but can’t marry him. Her new husband is not at all demonstrative, demands obedience, and doesn’t want her to talk to the other people who live in his village once she moves there. At first, she didn’t strike me as the most savvy of women. The situation seems pretty hopeless…until Rósa quietly starts to buck the rules and stick her nose in where Jón really doesn’t want it. Of course, Jón should have known better than to tell someone to stay away from locked doors and then leave them alone with said locks. Besides, wouldn’t you want to know if your new husband was a grieving widower or a murderer who is desperate to keep a secret?
I wasn’t sure which direction The Glass Woman was going to go. Was this an Icelandic Rebecca set in the 1680s? Or was it a Bluebeard with a lot more dried fish? Or would Lea borrow more from the Laxdæla Saga that Rósa adores? I had no idea. I twisted and turned along with Rósa as she discovered more clues about what happened to Anna, and whether or not Jón is a villain. I definitely didn’t expect the LGBTQ elements that wove themselves convincingly (and heartbreakingly) into a story that ended up blending Rebecca, Bluebeard, and the Laxdæla Saga that kept me guessing.
There are some sections—narrated by Jón in his interstitial sections—that are a little overwritten. (It’s probably the saga coming through.) This is my only quibble. The Glass Woman hooked me. Lea’s research shows through in the way she recreates a hardscrabble (and very cold) Iceland, a place so demanding that it makes Rósa’s choice make complete sense. Really though, it was the characters that got me. I just had to know if Rósa would be okay. I had to know if Jón was really a murderer and what happened to that first wife.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.