Travel to Iceland with Óskar Guðmundsson’s The Commandments
Character and identity in Northern Iceland
Travel to Iceland with Óskar Guðmundsson’s The Commandments – Today, we’re chatting about Óskar Guðmundsson’s settings in his new novel The Commandments. Wrap up warm as we’re off to Iceland.
Óskar Guðmundsson’s The Commandments has a feel to it that’s different to most Icelandic crime novels, which is partly down to the setting. Most Icelandic crime fiction is set in the south-west corner, with the urban sprawl of Reykjavík and the districts around it as the backdrop. But Óskar struck out on his own and The Commandments is set around Eyjafjörður in the north of the country, mainly in Iceland’s second ‘city’ of Akureyri.
That’s not to say Akureyri can exactly be called a city. With a population of around 18,000, it’s a fraction of the size of Reykjavík, and it has a strong character and identity of its own.
So why set the story in the north of Iceland, in this peaceful spot that seems almost wrong for a crime story, especially one as harrowing and memorable as The Commandments?
‘It’s a place I’m extremely fond of,’ he explained.
‘I’m from the south, but my wife is from the north of Iceland and has a large group of friends in Akureyri. We’ve spent a lot of time there. So I wanted to use this as the backdrop, a part of Iceland that I’m familiar with even though I have never lived there myself.’
The nature of The Commandments and the sensitive nature of the subject matter didn’t go unnoticed, especially as there are real locations used in the book, such as the Glerá Church in Akureyri.
‘I had a call from the priest at the Glerá Church, asking me to come and speak to them about the book, and it was clear there was a lot of concern in the church that there could be a reference to a particular member of the clergy who had been involved in abuse. I talked to them for a long time, and was able to put their minds at rest that there was no reference to any current priest. They were clearly nervous about this. The book takes on some sensitive subject matter,’ Óskar said.
‘So it didn’t come as a surprise.’
The Commandments has its brutal moments. For example, there’s a murder that’s discovered in the church of the village of Grenivík. This picturesque settlement lies on the eastern side of the fjord, half an hour’s drive to the north of Akureyri. It’s the last place anyone would imagine a particularly vicious killing could take place. That is what makes it so striking.
‘I spent some time in Grenivík, looking around and checking the place out as a place to set a crime. I had a long talk with an elderly man who had lived there his whole life and he answered a lot of questions for me,’ Óskar explained.
‘Afterwards, I felt guilty about setting this fictional murder in a place like Grenivík, and especially in such a beautiful church. His response was that I ought to go ahead with it, “as nothing ever happens around here and it’s time something did,” as he put it.’
Óskar commented that Grenivík appealed as a setting for this part of the story because it is a remote spot However, at the same time it’s not far from the town, providing a colourful contrast of semi-rural and urban.
‘It was exciting to use somewhere like Grenivík, because it is such a special place. The river setting at Laxá dropped into the mix as well. That’s a place I also know well. I’m so fond of this part of Iceland that it was a pleasure to use Akureyri as the backdrop,’ he said.
‘You get the feeling that Akureyri is a less stressful place than Reykjavík, although that may be because whenever I spend time there, I’m on holiday. But there are things about it that make it very peaceful. For instance, there are no illuminated advertising signs anywhere. They were banned some time ago, and while you wouldn’t imagine it makes much of a difference, it really does. You notice it, that you’re not being pressured to buy this or that as you drive through the town.’
He added that the people of Akureyri and the district around it have a strong pride in their town. They are highly protective of its identity and character.
‘It’s an enchanting place. There’s a peace and a stillness to Akureyri that you don’t find elsewhere. I’ve only met charming people there. It’s always a pleasure to go back.’