Review: The Glass Woman by Caroline Lea

Are you a fan of mesmerising historical fiction with a Gothic twist? Then The Glass Woman is one to add to your TBR list right now. Set in 17th Century Iceland, this is a truly atmospheric read that captures the isolation, brooding sense of mistrust and general struggle for survival prevalent in those times. Oh, and it’s a cracking story too.

Opening sentence: The day the earth shifts, a body emerges from the belly of the ice-crusted sea.

Who is the glass woman?

Well, the title could, in fact, refer to more than one character. The first is Rósa, a paster’s daughter who accepts marriage to a prominent man, Jon, from another village to ensure food for her mother. Since her father died, Rósa and her mother have been struggling, so she sees marrying a stranger as a way to ensure her family’s survival.

Or the glass woman could be Jon’s first wife, Anna who died in mysterious circumstances…

A woman made of glass and stillness: perfect but easily shattered.

When Rósa arrives in her new village, she is befriended by Katrin but Jon is not keen on her speaking to anyone, there are things he doesn’t want Rósa to discover. There is also the matter of his sinister croft (attic). It is kept locked and Rósa is forbidden from going into it but when she starts to hears noises, she wonders: what is Jon keeping up there? (Random and specific book link: People of Abandoned Character is nothing alike in plot to this but it DOES also have a secret-in-the-attic element.)

Complex characters

The oppressive and secretive atmosphere just hums from the pages. Especially through Jon – he is a complex man who just has issues talking about his feelings. Cast as both devil and saviour, he is multi-faceted and a true enigma, just when you really dislike him, he’s given a character reference like this:

‘You offer hope, Jon. You show them that life can be more than survival.’

It is this blend that makes him so enticing. And dangerous. Rosa is a pretty enthralling character too, she feels repressed and isolated and threads of witchcraft are woven around her too. Always a combination that will eventually result in something giving:

Rósa feels as though she is on the lip of a volcano and must balance on the precipice, ignoring the heat, while the lava bubbles beneath her.

The Icelandic Sagas

I loved how The Glass Woman uses extracts from and refers a lot to the old Icelandic Sagas. Not something I’d actually heard of before, but they are the native folklore tales of Iceland and all seem very dramatic and enticing, no wonder Rósa is such a fan of them:

Rósa feels a thrill of excitement: she spent her childhood in awe of the fierce Saga women, who married four times and urged men to kill each other for love of her.

There were also Icelandic words scattered throughout (there’s even a glossary at the back to explain them) that really added to the atmosphere and helped to fully transport you to the setting.

The Glass Woman was similar in lots of ways to The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave, but while The Mercies has a focus on witchcraft, The Glass Woman is more of a nod. Both excellent stories though, that evoke the harsh Icelandic & Scandinavian landscapes

A brilliant read

The haunting desolation stops her breath in her throat.

I picked this book up on a whim from the library – I’d heard it mentioned as a great read with a Gothic feel and when I saw the beautiful cover, I couldn’t resist. (Yes, I do judge books by their covers.) It was a great decision, I loved every page: the writing was beautiful and I got completely emotionally caught up in the story. I may or may not have even shed a tear at the end.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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